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What is True Leadership?

What is True Leadership?

Leadership, not unlike Winston Churchill’s description of Russia as an “enigma wrapped up in mystery,” is one of those strange things that is hard to describe, but you certainly know when you are in the presence of someone who has it.

My own earliest memories of leadership came mainly from the movies – Davy Crockett, Guy Gibson of Dam Busters fame, and of course a fearless John Wayne, who led every major battle in the Wild West, the second World War, Korea and Vietnam, without actually donning a real uniform. As I moved into my teens I was fascinated by JFK ( John F. Kennedy ) and Martin Luther King. I wasn’t aware of their politics but they impressed me to no end, unlike those who governed the UK in the same era who were dull, grey, old and always seemed to be in change. JFK and Martin Luther King were examples of vibrant, passionate men who inspired nations long before the advent of cyber communications. “I have a dream ….” was Martin Luther King’s message, not “I have five K.P.I.’s and a business plan” which seems to be the catch-cry of many of today’s business and political “leaders.”

Over my career as an adult educator, trainer and consultant, I have witnessed the many approaches to defining and capturing the essence of leadership, from the early days of Blake and Mouton’s 9/9 grid, to Paul Hersey and Ken Blanchard’s situational approach, through to Stephen Covey’s principle based leadership and not unlike the “curate’s egg” they are all good in part. So how do you approach this multifaceted, multidimensional thing called leadership? Can leadership be taught? Can it be captured in the ever-growing sea of MBAs and matrices of leadership competencies? Or is it a magical force reserved only for those special beings who have been touched by the magic wand of charisma?

One of my growing fears is that in a world increasingly addicted to instant communications and instant gratification, there is a blurring between society’s fascination with celebrity and leadership. From the plethora of personality profiles that populate the leadership development landscape, I continually hear those quieter, more reflective members of organizations lament on how they are invisible in the crowd and constantly overlooked in the race for the glittering prizes. How, they ask, can they compete with the peacocks (and pea hens) in the organisational world?

However, it is not all gloom and doom in the leadership arena. The focus on the “soft stuff” (which in reality was always the hard stuff!) albeit repackaged under the emotional intelligence banner, has helped to focus on who leaders are, rather than what they are and the growing realisation that a compassionate style of leading others does not necessarily equate to a weak or permissive style.

My own belief, based on my experience in the design and delivery of leadership programs in many shapes and forms, is that leadership is not so much about getting others to follow you (hence the old saying that “a leader without followers is merely someone going for a walk”) but getting others to find and follow their own internal compass. In other words, the essence of true leadership is being the catalyst for change in others. A young course participant posed a question to me in a workshop a number of years ago. He asked “What is the best way to raise your own self esteem?” Responses from myself and other group members included “positive self talk,” “feedback from others” and  “celebrate your successes and achievements.” The young student agreed they were all worthy things to do, but the best way to raise your own self esteem is to raise the self esteem of others. Leadership is no different – true leadership is about bringing out the leadership in others. In the words of a valued colleague, “good managers help people to do what they do better – good leaders take them where they have never been before.”

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About Stewart Mitchell

Stewart Mitchell is an Australian based consultant who has worked extensively in the public and private sectors for over 20 years. The focus of Stewart's work is continuous improvement through people and the development of positive and innovative workplace cultures. He can be contacted at stewart2@chariot.net.au

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One Comment

  1. Richard MotetFebruary 22, 2013 at 8:05 pm

    There is no mystery to leadership and its attendant behaviors – Warren Bennis nailed it back in 1983.
    – Management of attention
    – Management of meaning
    – Management of trust
    – Management of self
    – I would add Management of time.

About the Editor and Primary Author

Jon Warner

Jon Warner is an executive coach and management consultant and in the past has been a CEO in three very different companies. Read more

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