By Quora Contributor
What does leadership mean to you? originally appeared on Quora: the place to gain and share knowledge, empowering people to learn from others and better understand the world.
Answer by Jeff Eggers, Executive Director at McChrystal Group, Co-Author of Leaders, on Quora:
What does leadership mean to you?
We (the three co-authors) have convened physically (in Alexandria, VA) for this question, and I’m sitting across the table from Stan and Jay now. We’re smiling at this first question, for it’s probably the most difficult, and also the most important. The way the question is posed, Stan’s answer might vary a bit from mine or Jay’s. But we came to some agreement about this important question in the course of writing the book, so I’ll take a stab at outlining how we re-considered what leadership really means.
The word “leadership” is notoriously difficult to define with any consensus — it means different things to different people. I have the Bass Handbook of Leadership on my bookshelf at home (I don’t carry it around, it’s about 5 pounds) — it’s something of a source book for those studying leadership, and it claims that “often a two-day meeting to discuss leadership has started with a day of argument over the definition.”
In the course of writing the book, it occurred to us that a main concern with leadership traces back to how we generally define leadership, or how we think of it. Most people define leadership as a process — meaning it describes the actions and effects of the leader. We often speaks in causal and process terms: a person’s “leadership” style consisted of traits A, B, and C, and their “leadership” achieved results X, Y, and Z. In this popular usage, the word leadership is shorthand for what the leader does.
And it is here that we see a root cause of the mythology of leadership — its relentless focus on the leader. For years, humans have searched for the secret of leadership by studying why certain leaders achieve enviable results where others do not. We believe (wrongly) that what happened in one leadership instance can be replicated in another.
Our book offers a new definition for leadership. Namely, we offer that leadership is less a process enacted by the leader, and more the emergent property of the system that includes leaders, followers, and their enveloping context. This new paradigm allows us to attribute causality to a wider array of factors. Moreover, it allows leadership to become contextual, where what “works” in one instance may not work in another instance.
Most interesting, this reframed definition of leadership allows for the fact that systems of followers are responsible for the emergence of the leader, and also makes space for the followers holding that leader accountable for their behavior. This means that leadership is very often wrapped up in the identity of the leader-follower system. It describes how that system sees itself, what it values, and what it finds meaningful.
In sum, and a few words, we came up with the following answers:
Jeff: “A reflection of who we are.”
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