A Concept Difficult to Define
Leadership is a concept that is difficult to define. Rightly so, because there is no one leadership, as insinuated by the simplistic tales that we are told.
Leadership can mean different things to different people, based on their values, aspirations, culture, and what have you. Additionally, different situations may require different types of leaders. Leaders sometimes may do horrific things to accomplish a goal while their goals can be ethical, non-ethical, against the law, or a combination of all. Their mission may not always be as black and white as insinuated by the tales we are told. Leadership opportunities can also be time-limited. The emergence of a leader can be as critical as the step down of that leader when his/her work is done.
Leadership by Appointment?
Exceptional leaders often emerge from certain circumstances. The most profiled leaders in history emerged in connection with a cause, a vision, some kind of a passion. The driving force for exceptional leaders isn’t usually a paycheck or merely getting appointed to lead others.
The circumstances from which exceptional leaders emerge generally don’t apply to organizations, except for when they were initially created. Organizations are often created with (genuine) intentions, e.g., to accomplish a vision, to serve, or to fulfill someone's purpose in life. However, over time, their “purpose” tends to shift. Over time, individuals running the organizations, their self-interest, greed, immaturity, and other human shortcomings start to define the direction. Subsequently, the mere existence of organizations and the self-interest of the persons running them becomes more important than the purpose for which they were initially created. There are countless examples of this. Political parties and other idealistic organizations are some of the most illustrative ones.
Put on a Pedestal or Villainized
Some of the most exceptional leaders in history are people ranging from Mahatma Gandhi to Adolf Hitler. The fact that Gandhi and Hitler can belong to any same (artificial) category should make us wary. At the very least, it should make us question sanitized leadership narratives because even though these examples seem to be two extreme cases, it doesn’t even take two separate individuals for the extremes to occur. The extremes can occur even within one “leader;” for example, in the form of a champion of human rights in one arena who has no problem violating human rights in another arena.
Through sanitized leadership narratives, however, leaders are often either put on a pedestal or villainized. The black and white stories are easier to tell and digest than having to admit to complex aspects of human psychology and examine social conditioning. The latter is crucial in all truth-finding. That is why most of the narratives we are told have little to do with the truth. The truth requires going within, examining one's own life. However, who wants to examine one’s own life when one can “get out there and ‘develop leaders’”?
Being a Leader Versus Occupying a Leadership Position
According to leadership narratives, anyone in an organization can allegedly be a leader even though individuals at the higher levels of organizational hierarchies are generally referred to as leaders, regardless of whether they are “leading” or not.
It is correct to assume that anyone can be a leader. However, just not for the reasons the leadership narratives give us. Being a leader generally requires independent thinking and the courage to be a change agent. Within organizations, unless one is in a leadership position, opportunities to lead tend to be limited. The limitation is closely tied to the hierarchies. Individuals in superior positions can feel threatened by the leadership of a subordinate. The level of threat the superiors perceive by a subordinate and her/his capabilities will determine how much room the subordinate will be given to lead. This, in turn, can encourage or discourage the subordinate, depending on what his/her capabilities or potentials are.
Organizational Hierarchies Encourage Conformity, Discourage Leadership
Organizations, where work is performed, are hierarchical entities—no matter how non-hierarchical they claim to be—that encourage conformity and discourage leadership.
Hierarchies nurture the ego and trigger the need to control others. In hierarchical organizations, there is a tendency to keep up the status-quo and pressure to conform. Even within organizations that are identified by change, innovation, research, and development, change is usually closely controlled and tied to a particular status-quo, to one or more individual’s self-interests. The more hierarchical an organization, the truer this generally is. However, the leaders that organizations are allegedly desiring to develop are change agents. Desiring (independent) change agents and wanting to exert control are, in essence, contradictory concepts. Meaning, the two realities clash.
There is a time, however, when true leadership in structured organizations are a realistic option—when things are falling apart. The reason for this is human psychology. When things get very bad, human beings become more willing to give up control. They are willing to open up and do things that they would usually not (be willing to) do. The worse the situation, the more they are willing to give up control and allow change to happen.
Two Basic Types of Leadership
There are two basic types of leadership: idea leadership and leading others. The two types can overlap, coexist, or be in opposition to each other. One of the most critical bases for idea leadership—coming up with new ideas and having the courage to implement them—is critical thinking and questioning the status quo. Based on that, we know that we are not "developing" too many leaders because otherwise, at the very least, the leadership narratives that have little to do with reality would have no way of spreading as much as they do.
On the other hand, the lack of critical thinking should not come as a surprise because while critical thinking skills are the basis for idea leadership, the opposite is generally true when it comes to leading others.
For leaders to lead, they must have followers. Effective following often requires a lack of critical thinking or questioning, or at least, scaling down and not acting on them. It must be noted that there are legitimate times when toning down of “critical thinking” and questioning can benefit the overall good. However, lack of questioning and critical thinking is a problem when it becomes a permanent state, as often observed within organizations when they are scaled down due to fear of losing one’s job, trying to fit in, receiving validation, moving up the ladder, or other similar factors.
True Leadership Is Based on Voluntary Following
True leadership is based on voluntary following where followers gravitate to, and in essence, define the leader. True leaders have followers who have a desire to be led by the individual due to his/her merit, not because followers are instructed to follow an appointed “leader.” Career leadership where followers have no say in who gets to lead them has little to do with leadership. That is why hierarchies become essential. Hierarchies create the necessary power imbalances which ensure that career leaders have followers, regardless of their skills and the quality of their actions. It goes without saying that appointed leaders can also be true leaders whom the followers follow willingly due to the quality of their actions. However, such leaders are too few and in between. This is understandable, because organizational hierarchies encourage allegiance to one’s superiors, instead of allegiance to the mission. After all, the mission doesn’t hire or fire a “leader,” but the superiors do.
Insecurities, Fear, and Other Factors in Workplace Interactions
Within the arbitrarily created hierarchies in organizations, individuals with different levels of (childhood) trauma, insecurities, fear, aspirations, motivation, values, courage (and the long list goes on), coexist. In many ways, workplaces are not too different from a children’s playground. Both in the playground, as well as in the workplace, individuals are looking for similar things—recognition, validation, and above it all, love, and connection with others no matter how unlikely this may sound. However, the conditioned society that fiercely discourages authenticity leads to the creation of a reality where individuals, among others, pretend to be someone they are not, or give up on the truth altogether. Subsequently, highly destructive behavior patterns start to develop.
For example, in the workplace, statements that even defy the principles of science can easily be made. Highly educated and established subordinates may be listening to the statements and may pretend to not notice the lack of coherency in the statements made, or choose not to say anything. After a while, accepting such lies and delusions becomes normalized. Employees start to consider the lying, looking away, and not speaking up as an integral part of the professional workplace. Euphemisms such as “professionalism” or “diplomacy” are used to cover up the lies because rarely does anyone have the courage to speak up out of fear of losing their jobs or retaliation.
One of the most taxing and challenging tasks in workplaces is generally not the duties of a given job but rather navigating through the children’s playground aspect of workplaces, a concept referred to as “workplace politics.” Workplace politics is not more and not less than working with the childhood trauma of adults in an environment based on the unequal distribution of individual power.
Most Important Aspect of Leadership Is Courage
The most challenging aspect of (idea-)leadership is not coming up with new ideas to lead, but rather, having the courage to put the ideas into action.
Exceptional leadership takes courage because true leadership often comes at a high price. Let us go back in history and look at what happened to some of the most exceptional leaders—Martin Luther King Jr., Mahatma Gandhi, JFK, Julius Caesar: they were killed.
Besides the most extreme form of punishment—death—being a leader can mean being isolated, looked down upon, ridiculed, excluded, and even persecuted. Let us think about some exceptional authors or painters in history who developed new ways of doing things, introduced new ideas, new forms, and what happened to them. Many of them died before their work was ever appreciated, while during their lifetime, they were ridiculed, looked down upon, and excluded. At the very least, they experienced long periods of isolation.
True leadership can be an extremely lonely and painful place. It takes substantial courage to be a true leader. Hierarchical organizations are hardly a place that nurtures such exceptional courage…