Why can’t we capture the meaning of leadership?

For centuries philosophers, mystics and the clergy have argued about the meaning of leadership – without a definite conclusion. Business people have devised their own tantalising question which has spawned an entire industry.

“How do we define a great leader?” seems like a simple question. But according to eminent leadership scholar James MacGregor Burns, leadership is the most studied and the least understood concept in all of the social sciences. Waxing eloquent on leadership has made many authors famous and rich. It has perplexed many students and continues to intrigue academics.

It is sometimes easy to spot incidents of great leadership, single acts which most people agree on. These are glimpses of greatness and can be seen on a kids’ soccer field, in battle, in a boardroom, during an earthquake, in a riot and among the sick and dying. A gesture by a politician at a time of crisis or a thoughtful act in a moment of calamity are celebrated on social media and the word “leadership” is bandied about energetically.

Moments of great leadership can be identified but how can the concept be defined? Enter the wordsmiths who cobble together the “essence of leadership” in a few phrases: courage, vision, humility, communication, inspiration, authenticity. Yet at the same time we could each think of a great leader who has some but not all of these virtues. Are they still great?

The challenge of course is that to define something as elusive as leadership cannot be done scientifically. For every attempt there are many examples which defy the description. Every time you imagine you’ve nailed the concept a new leader emerges who acts in a way that makes a mockery of the definition. Add to the mix the conundrum of a leader who some people consider a saint and others deem despicable, but he or she is the same person and we are observing the same actions.

Leadership as perception

And that is the core of the problem. Leadership is not a characteristic, it is a perception, an impression, an idea which changes over time, geography, context and culture. One person’s hero is another person’s criminal. A hero in ancient Greece might not be considered a great leader today – their misdeeds could land them in prison.

We also know that a paragon of leadership rarely transfers from one context to another. A great leader on the rugby field is not necessarily a good political leader because the rules of the game are fluid, the relevant audiences are not the same, the opponents’ tactics differ, and more. You might be safer in the scrum than in parliament!

In a sense leadership resides in the eye of the beholder. Maybe a great leader is nothing more than someone who meets the expectations of leadership among their followers. So, a leader in one remote village is great if he or she are hailed as a great leader by their villagers. Problem solved!

Global leaders?

Of course not. Within a connected world where a revolution can spread from one corner of the globe to another in a few seconds, the actions of any person are unlikely to remain purely local. A leader has to think beyond the village, because the village is global, it is powerful, not necessarily well informed, open to bad influences and savagely critical. Leaders are created, elevated and dashed to pieces within the space of a week. The perception of great leadership changes with the tides. Fame can germinate from a YouTube clip and can be extinguished by a baying crowd in the comments, fuelled by hype and expressed in emojis.

No wonder the books on leadership keep selling. Every leadership guru refines or expands the concept and their work is based on evidence and therefore they tell the truth. Every counter-argument is based on different evidence and is also true.

Where does this chaos leave us? Where do we find the real truth and which recipe must we to follow to become great leaders in our own context? Should we embrace one author and follow their guidance? Should we abandon the whole lot and do what comes naturally?

Prof Ted Zorn discusses these and other leadership challenges in his webinar entitled “What we keep getting wrong about leadership.” Watch it here.

Ted Zorn is a Professor of Organisational Communication and Head of Massey Executive Development. He is both a scholar and practitioner of leadership, with more than 80 publications and numerous awards for his research. And, for more than 20 years he’s held leadership roles in universities, professional associations and community organisations, including as Dean of Massey Business School and Deputy Vice-Chancellor of Massey University. He has a record of creating positive changes in each of his leadership roles. His more than six years as Dean at Massey Business School saw the creation of multiple new, successful education programmes; doubling of research output (while improving quality);  and placing Massey at the top of NZ business schools in the Shanghai International Rankings for business management and finance.