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Not About The Leader

“Making initiatives successful is all about focus and passionate commitment. The drumbeat must be relentless. Every leadership action must demonstrate total commitment to the initiative.” — Jack Welch

Welch believes that leadership success depends on the focus and passionate commitment of the leader. Other authors emphasize different aspects of leader behavior but nonetheless, the leader is the prime mover, the key factor in the leadership equation. Similarly, “leadership” evokes various related images, depending on who is speaking and who is listening. Central to those images, however, are a few common characteristics that deserve your attention. For example, virtually all leadership images include an individual filling the leader role. Concurrently, an individual or group fills the follower role. The image is one of leaders and followers. Further, the leader sets the direction of motion and the followers conform to that directional prompt. This arrangement forms a familiar image: leaders leading and followers following.

Typically, then, the image of leadership is based on a model that first includes a leader. This individual exhibits skills and abilities, characteristics and traits, behaviors and qualities that are identifiable and collectively attributable more to leaders than to non-leaders. Call these characteristics, traits, and behaviors “leader substance” or the X factor.

Followers similarly exhibit skills and abilities, characteristics and traits, behaviors and qualities that are typically associated more with followers than with non-followers. Call these characteristics, traits, and behaviors “follower substance” or the Y factor.

The image is completed when the direction of motion set by the leader and the followers conforming to that prompt result in observable change in the image over time. This aspect of the image may be referred to as “change substance” or the Z factor.

The tentative conclusion, then, is that leadership is operating whenever X + Y is producing Z, with the collective action of all three factors representing the necessary condition for leadership to be present. Conversely, if any of the three factors is absent, leadership is not present. You are observing leadership only when there is a leader, followers, and the followers are conforming to the directional prompt of the leader.

Much of the “leadership” literature focuses more or less exclusively on the leader, on the X factor. Attention is limited to the skills and abilities, characteristics and traits, behaviors and qualities associated with leaders and with leadership excellence. The followers are seen as a constant and conforming to the directional prompt of the leader is seen as a dependent variable in relationship to the leader. In the model, leadership is mostly if not exclusively about the leader.

As can be seen, “leadership” is a complex phenomenon, with the leader only representing one factor. At a minimum, the followers and their capacity to conform to the directional prompt of the leader are of equal or perhaps greater significance. Additionally, the operating environment may be an additional factor not considered above.

A sports example can be used to illustrate the point. Start with a leader . Add followers . Now have the players conform to the directional prompt of the coach, they play well. Assume this is a football team and they win the Super bowl. Is it appropriate to conclude that we are seeing an example of great leadership, by the coach?

If you turn to the leadership literature for guidance, you quickly conclude that, “Yes, the coach is a great leader and this is an example of leadership excellence.” Suppose you learned that this team has the only qualified football players in the league. Is the fact that they won the Super Bowl still a product of leadership excellence? Probably not. Suppose further that this team is the only team that has experience playing in the snow and the Super Bowl was played in the snow. Again, attributing the win to leadership excellence may be unjustified.

It’s clear that any of the factors associated with leadership , in addition to the operating environment, can and do affect the leadership phenomenon. Leadership is not about the leader any more so than education is about the teacher or baseball is about the Manager. The leader is a key factor among key factors, no more, no less.

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