Monday, September 5, 2011

Defining Leadership: Exactly What Is It?

There have been many attempts to define leadership in the workplace between a boss and his/her reports. Most define it by using one or more characteristics of a leader or something that a leader does such as providing a vision, getting things done through people or challenging the status quo. Those are not really definitions, only descriptions of what a leader might be doing. What a particular leader is doing does not provide us an understanding of what leadership is, only of what that leader believes is appropriate to do in order to lead.

No, the only true way of determining what leadership actually is would be to find out what followers follow. And once you think you have the answer, you would then verify it by making sure that whenever leadership changes, that followers actually follow the changes. Then you would know as I do because I went through exactly that process.

I discovered this by chance when I shifted away from using the traditional top-down approach to managing people. In using top-down, I was always figuring out my next order, giving it, and then checking to see if the effect I desired was occurring and if not, then issuing more orders. In this mode, I never truly listened to my people and had no time to do so. But when I changed my approach, I began really listening to my people and eventually learned from them how followers acted in the workplace meaning what they were following and thus what my leadership was.

So, how should we define ‘leadership’?

As concisely as I can state it, leadership is the act of transmitting value standards to employees which most of them then follow/use in the performance of their work. Thus we say that they have been "led" in the direction of those standards. I like to say that leadership is one side of the coin called values, the other side being followership.

How is this leadership, these value standards, communicated to employees? Quite simply, through their every day experiences. In the main, these experiences come from whatever support the boss has provided employees such as tools, direction, training, parts, procedures, advice, documentation, information, rules, planning and discipline. Each of these experiences reflects a standard for one or more values. The employee detects these standards, combines them with all previous experiences and then uses the resultant standard as how to do their work; how industriously, neatly, knowledgeably, caringly, respectfully, etcetera, etcetera.

In contemplating value standards, I found it useful to think of a range or spectrum of standards from minus 10 to plus 10 for each value such as from total dishonesty to total honesty, from indolence to industriousness, arrogance to humility, dirty to clean, disorganized to neat, discourteous to courtesy, disrespect to respect, uncaring to caring, ignorant to knowledgeable and so on for all values.

For instance, if the tools management supplies to employees are hard to find and when found are usually obsolete, this might reflect a standard of negative 4 for the quality of the boss' work and for respect for and caring about an employee who experiences this condition. If most of the other things this employee experiences average close to a negative 4 for caring and respect, the employee will conclude that the boss doesn't really care about or respect that employee. Then, that employee will use the same standard in performing work, i.e. as if the employee did not care about doing a good job.

If the boss does not listen to employees, employees interpret this as being very disrespectful thus leading them to treat their work, their customers, each other and their bosses with the same level of disrespect. If the boss listens to employees but never takes action as a result of that listening, this is also interpreted as being very disrespectful and results in the same response by employees. If the boss plays her cards close to the vest, employees will use this standard of openness and not be willing to share information with each other or with the boss. If the boss does not readily admit to his/her errors, neither will employees. Each of these actions or inactions reflect certain standards of certain values and constitute leadership by the boss.

Because following the boss' leadership, as I have defined it, is what most employees do, there is no way for managers to escape from this or change it. It just occurs every day regardless of what a boss might wish. Bosses can only choose what standards (very high, very low, or somewhere between the extremes) are transmitted to employees by his/her support.

Because about 95% (estimated by experts) of the workforce are followers more or less, "followership" turns out to be a major consideration in managing people. Those managers who understand followership can become extremely proficient at making the most of their human capital, at achieving the only true goal of managing people that being to lead them to unleash their full potential of creativity, innovation, productivity, motivation and commitment on their work.

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