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The field of Leadership Studies is fragmented and obscured by self-proclaimed experts who claim to have discovered the “essence” of leadership. Such claims often come couched in terms that demean the use of this word by others who define it differently. This effort to monopolize the word “leadership” is misguided. It fails to understand that, in fact, there is no essence to leadership.
The mistake people make is epistemological and linguistic—it has to do with how we know something and how words are used to express what we think we know. It’s like this: you can claim there is no leadership outside your particular framework, but that doesn’t make it so. If people describe something and enough of them call this “thing” they are describing “leadership,” then whatever it is they are describing is in fact leadership—at least it’s what they call leadership. You see, the important thing is not the word you use, but the thing that it describes.
Words are merely labels we humans attach to something we have experienced or seen. They are not the things themselves. The word “leadership” does not have an essence—it is simply a tag. It’s the phenomenon that is important. We just as well could have called it “pishredleap” or “shiperdeal” or “reshdealip.” Or how about “conducer” (Romanian), “rukovodstvo” (Croatian), “udheheqje” (Albanian), or “guida” (Italian)?
If, in the English-speaking world, enough people use the label “leadership” to describe…
- the ability to influence others,
- the ability to mobilize people,
- the ability to help people achieve their goals, and
- the ability to visualize and communicate a better future,
then that is in fact leadership. There is such a thing as influence, motivation, mobilization, and visualization and—if a community agrees that, for the sake of smoother communication, we will label this combination of activities and abilities “leadership”—then that’s what it is and there is nothing you or I can do about it.
What we can do, however, is try to refine our understanding of the phenomenon itself. This requires honesty with ourselves in that we must acknowledge to ourselves the bias from which we see and perceive the thing we call “leadership.” Most leadership literature has sought to understand it from a Western cultural perspective. This raises some important questions.
For example, is this same phenomenon present in other cultures? If so, how does it manifest itself? Is there something that is universal about this phenomenon? Why is it that some cultures don’t even have a word for “leadership” (a problem in translation that is more common than most people imagine)? If a language group has no word for “leadership,” does this mean the phenomenon does not exist in those cultures? Is it a particularly Western concept?
Don’t get me wrong—I do think there is something “out there” that we have agreed to call leadership. It has something to do with the things I mentioned above. What I’m calling for a little more humility from the leadership guru industry. Let’s stop claiming a monopoly on leadership and just look at the thing itself and how we can improve it.
If you can help clarify what I’m getting at, please share your comments below. I would really like to hear from some of my international friends about this. Can you describe leadership as understood by other cultures? Do you know of a culture where there is no translation for the word leadership? What happens in those communities? Is it that the phenomenon we call “leadership” doesn’t exist in those places or is something else happening?
Greg Waddell provides consulting services for churches and organizations. Contact Dr. Waddell today at gregwaddell[at]leadstrategic.com to discuss the needs of your organization.