Introduction: The Need for Leadership

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The Need for Leadership

Our common thinking about leadership usually starts by calling to mind certain people we see as leaders and asking:

  • What it is about them that makes them such great leaders?
  • What qualities do these people have?
  • And how have they used them to gain and exercise power?

Given this familiar starting point, it might seem most natural to begin a leadership course by talking about the special personal abilities that enable someone to lead.

Or the way someone gains a following and wields power. But as we will see, there are really good reasons to start our course, instead, by looking at the need for leadership.

The challenges for which leadership becomes so valuable. The basic reason for us to begin with leadership challenges is this simple insight, in any group of people, we only need leadership when we face challenges.

In a perfect situation where everything is working just right in ideal balance with the world around us to give us security into the future, there would be no leadership call.

In a situation without challenges, well, I imagine we would have achieved some kind of heaven on Earth. And we only would need to celebrate our blessings and keep doing what we are doing. We wouldn’t need leadership.

Hands, Tools, or Personal Abilities?

The key sources of confusion in how people think about leadership are that the default setting, the natural inclination of people studying leadership, including most of my colleagues around here, is that they mistake the personal abilities, the hands or the tools, as the essence of leadership.

So they think about leadership, and they define leadership in terms of personal abilities or the powers and influence, the tools of persuasion, the tools of inspiration.

The positions of authority that bring with them a whole set of tools. Rather than the work to be done. And what we’re going to begin to establish then is a way of centering our understanding–I don’t draw pictures very well– but we’re going to try to separate the tools that you would bring.

Let’s say, you’re a farmer, and that’s a rake. We will try to separate out the hands and the tools from the work to be done. The field to be plowed, if you’re trying to grow some crop.

The Work to Be Done

And the reason why we’re going to anchor our concept of leadership in the work to be done, the problem to be solved, the challenges to be met is that if we were only to focus on the hands that it takes, the personal abilities, we would begin to quickly discover
that these physical or personal abilities are not specific.

You can have a remarkable analytical capacity and a lot of knowledge about the human body:

  • But are you a cardiologist?
  • Are you a pathologist?
  • Are you doing research?

There are a lot of different things you could be doing with those same hands and those same tools. So when people start the conversation about leadership by focusing on here are the personal capacities, this is what it means to become a leader, to be a leader, independent of the challenge we’re facing, it very quickly becomes a, like in psychology, we would call it a Rorschach test or a projection where people begin to project into this all of their favorite qualities.

Whether or not they’re really relevant to meet these challenges, that’s untested. Similarly, people tend to define leadership in terms of the powers, the tools of power and influence, authority, persuasion, charisma. But one could have all of those tools and not practice any leadership.

Those tools are useful in lots of walks of life.
Here’s another example.

  • One would say that to practice leadership requires courage.
  • It requires a stomach for conflict.
  • It requires a stomach for ambiguity.
  • It requires the ability to listen.
  • It requires the ability to relate with people.

Well, all of that’s important if you’re raising teenage children. To raise a teenager, you’ve got to have courage. You have to have a tolerance for conflict. You have to have a tolerance for uncertainty because you just pray that it’s going to turn out.

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You’ve got to be able to listen. You have to be able to relate with this creature who you used to know, but what’s happened? And in fact, those same abilities are useful in lots of different walks of life. There are many, many walks of life where those abilities are relevant.

So to say these are the defining characteristics of a leader ends up being actually quite misguided. And there have been, in fact, thousands of studies to try to define here are the key characteristics.

Nobody’s ever come up with here are the key characteristics. Indeed, when they even do those studies, they first select who are we going to look at to define the characteristics?

They usually start with people who have the tools, people who are in positions of power or authority. And now let’s look at how they–what has it taken for them to gain those tools?

All of it’s disoriented from the work to be done, the challenge to be met, the house to be built. So that’s where we’re going to anchor our understanding of leadership is in work to be done. What are we trying to build here in our little house? What kind of house is it?

The Challenges Work Defines

Leadership is critically important in our lives because we do face challenges. We face challenges at every level of our lives, from families to small businesses, from schools to school districts, from towns to cities, and from states to nations, and to the complex network we call the international community.

So we start here, because we are going to anchor our understanding of leadership not in personal abilities– although these are important–and not in the tools and instruments you would use for practicing leadership– although these are invaluable too.

We’re going to anchor our understanding of leadership in the work to be done to meet tough challenges. How do you mobilize people to get important work done? As we do so, we will explore the personal abilities one needs, like the capacity to be trustworthy, to maintain one’s poise, to stomach conflict, and to communicate and listen well.

And we will also explore how to use different kinds of power skillfully and wisely, the tools of influence, persuasion, inspiration, and authority. But we don’t start there, because as key as these abilities and tools maybe, I think you can see from life around you that these abilities and tools are not specific to leadership or to any single realm of life.

They aren’t defining. They are important in many realms of life, from parenting to selling goods, from running a store to practicing law or medicine. In a sense, I am asking you to think of leadership like the craft of carpentry, or you may need good hands and good tools.

But good hands and good tools don’t define carpentry. Building something does. With the same good hands and tools, you might be an artist making sculpture, or a cabinet maker making fine furniture. The hands and tools don’t define the craft. The challenges do.

It’s the challenges of the work that define the craft, from building a house to meet specific needs to sculpting and crafting in wood and metal to realize a particular vision.

After decades of teaching and consulting around the world, I think the most common source of confusion about leadership is this one.

Many people see leadership as a set of abilities and tools. And therefore, they become disoriented in their thinking. They lose the compass heading provided by the challenges to be met and the work to be done to get somewhere.

In this course, we will explore the abilities and tools of leadership practice. But first, we need to anchor leadership in the work of leadership itself, the practice of mobilizing people to meet tough challenges.

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