This post (and the ones that follow) may differ from what I have been writing. I always write to make sense of the world and to understand it better. But I find myself in a liminal place where I no longer believe some things that I did before, and I am figuring out what is natural for me now and who I am becoming. Rather than writing from a perspective of what I know, I will write from a place of what I don’t know. This will be less of me explaining how I understand things and more of me working through that understanding. To paraphrase Walt Whitman, “If I contradict myself, very well, then I contradict myself. I am large, I contain multitudes.”
As a leader and a leadership coach, it is weird to question the nature of leadership and, in fact, the very concept of leaders. One challenge has come from a phrase I used to love: “better leaders are better humans and better humans are better leaders.” (Jerry Colonna, Reboot)
I think self-development has a very important role in our lives, but let’s look at the idea of a leader. A great leader is someone others choose to band together and follow to create a more significant impact than they could have; leaders inspire people to do things they couldn’t imagine. That definition of leadership alone is insufficient. The problem is that it describes both Martin Luther King and Hitler. Being a leader is not inherently good—the context of the vision and where you lead matters. Ethics plays a role.
Other definitions of great leaders depend on the traits of the leader. This gets us back to the “better person” view of leadership, but this assumes a singular view of what a great person is, and valuable traits are contextual. In the previous example, no reasonable person would disagree that Martin Luther King was a better person than Hitler, but many examples are not so clear-cut. The last two presidential elections in the United States have shown that people can have very different opinions on what traits are required of a leader. And “the right traits” can still exist in a person with dubious ethics. That becoming a better leader means becoming a better person can lead leaders into the false assumption that if they are successful as a leader, they must be good people. Managerialism claims that strong leaders can be successful in any situation, but this ignores the context. This reduces leadership to tracking metrics, which fails in the face of our complex reality.
A quote that opened my mind came from the book Small Arcs of Larger Circles by Nora Bateson:
“Celebrating the potency of the individual is an insatiable ghost haunting the endless array of courses and manuals for developing leaders…Instead of being activists for this or that, we need to tend to the contextual capacity for those changes we would like to see…Leadership does not reside in the person but in an arena that can be occupied by offerings of specific wisdom to the needs of the community…The individual’s responsibility is to be ready and willing to show up, serve, and then most importantly, stand back.”
What if we stopped talking about leaders and focused instead on leadership?
What if we stopped focusing on traits and focused on ethics?
What if we focused on the role of an individual as part of a larger mesh that is leadership, not as a role a person plays?