It would be safe to bet that hardly a day passes without you, the readers of this article, having an encounter with the word “Leadership”. The term Leadership has been rapidly expanding since the turn of the century as a popular “buzz” word. The heavy commercialization of the word, however, is distorting the public’s understanding of its core meaning and is misleading people.
Pick up a newspaper or magazine any day and you will find the word Leader or Leadership mentioned in at least one article in its business, politics, sports, culture or religion pages.
The same case applies to radio and television. Listen to a news bulletin or to a commentary and you are most likely going to hear the ‘L” word. In fact, if you Google the word “leadership” or “Leader” the search engine will tell you that it spotted the word Leadership about 270 million times and the world Leader 826 million times.
Businesses declare that their goal is to be Leaders in their industries and that they seek to hire people who know how to lead. Leadership skills are becoming a default requirement for job advertisements regardless of the nature of the job. Bosses use “Leadership” as a criterion of measuring employee performance and promise generous packages, benefits or rewards to employees who “demonstrate Leadership”.
Catching up with the wave, even business schools are using the term as a marketing tool to attract potential students by boldly highlighting their pledge to graduate Leaders.
Government officials and politicians have made Leadership a top measure to pride about their performance or to attack the performance of their opponents. Religious institutions also talk about Leadership and organize huge conferences about religious Leadership.
But as the market and social pressure mount on people to have Leadership skills and become Leaders, you can rarely find a group of individuals sharing the same understanding of what leadership is really about. The common definitions you usually hear associate the word with terms like authority, power, charisma, heroism, professional status, social standing, vision, influence, charm, presence, wisdom, exceptional knowledge, popularity, fame, character, unique personal traits or having the right DNA.
In fairness, the lack of clarity of what leadership is really about is normal. Leadership is a tricky subject to define because it is not based on clear laws of science the way physics and chemistry are. Leadership is an art. It is therefore open to various kinds of interpretations that generate numerous definitions by the public and by field experts.
It is hard to assess why more people want to develop leadership skills and become Leaders. A general underlying motive however seems in essence to be related to acquiring more power, control, wealth, social status, importance, professional status, fame, respect, prestige and other benefits that basically have a mainstream current linking them together: The Self.
Far from being judgmental, these wants or needs are to be respected and acknowledged but this is where the extensive commercialization of the concept of leadership has not only distorted the meaning of the word leadership but has actually mislead people.
While there are different definitions of leadership as mentioned earlier, the ultimate test of reality is that there should be two fundamental components to any definition of real leadership: 1- It is focused not about the self but about others. 2- It is about the resolution of tough problems and the creation of progress so that others can have a better life.
In short, leadership is about helping OTHERS face their difficult challenges and create progress so that THEY can have an abundant tomorrow.
Leadership is about supporting options and choices that are best for others even if they were at the expense of the person who is exercising leadership. It is about giving, sacrifice and selflessness rather than receiving, accumulation and ego.
To develop leadership skills is to become better at putting others first without expecting gratitude, reward or recognition.
Exercising leadership goes even further. Leadership means holding steady when people are sharply critical, showing strong resistance to your interventions and launching bitter personal attacks at you because they are not willing to follow your example and do the hard work that deals with the core of their problems or that creates real prosperity.
Leadership is a difficult, lonely and sometimes dangerous enterprise. It is vital to the survival and growth of any group of people, organization, community or nation. Without leadership neither our problematic realities can be dealt with nor progress can be generated.
To exercise leadership therefore is more than just having the right skills, it is about the courage to make a personal choice that others are more important than the self and that they are worth the sacrifice.