As I noted in a previous post, leadership is one of the most sought after yet elusive concepts in the workplace today. Scores of books have been written on the subject, each offering a unique angle and approach. Countless speakers, presenters and tweeters express their capacity to define leadership and provide clients with the key components needed for sustained, fulfilling and profit-generating direction.
The question, of course, is what is leadership and why is it so important? Moreover, if we know what leadership is, from research studies and/or examples of successful leaders past and present, why do we act as if we simply cannot fathom the concept or master its complexities?
In an article for Forbes, Kevin Kruse defines leadership as “a process of social influence, which maximizes the efforts of others, towards the achievement of a goal.” I like his approach because it factors in some important primary leadership elements: (social) influence, others, effort optimization and goals.
Leadership is about influencing others, rather than demanding and coercing. It speaks to the ability to win people over to a new way of thinking and practice, though idea-sharing, collaboration and role-modeling. These could be direct reports or colleagues. It could even include supervisors. While I disagree that leadership must be goal-oriented (I maintain that we oftentimes lead in general terms, such as through our conduct, without necessarily looking to bring people along in a particular regard), I do agree that goal-setting and achievement are typically the most common application of leadership. And we certainly want others to give their utmost to the project at hand.
It all seems simple enough. So why do we seem to dwell on the topic continually, without satiation? While I cannot offer anything definitive in this regard, I suspect that our drive towards leadership expertise — and our quest to truly own it — stems from a number of key factors.
Shifting marketplace: Today’s workplace is different than it used to be. It is more agile and dexterous, with many offsite employees and less emphasis on traditional reporting and organizational hierarchies. Leading becomes more challenging when we are unclear as to who we are expected to lead and how we can be influential in less structured environments.
Navigating through uncharted waters: Another related factor is the uncertainty that is the 21st century marketplace. We live at a time of constant change, with an ever-increasing demand for product development and currency in a fast-paced global economy. Leading change in such an environment is more difficult as leaders need to figure out their own way as they also try to get others to follow it.
New worker demographics: Millennials have become a meaningful component of the corporate environment and that’s only going to continue. Millennials are fundamentally different in many ways from their elder co-workers, in that they are less focused — on the aggregate — on status and financial intake and tend to place increased value on the quality of their work environment and its culture. They want to be heard, value and respected. They want to be led differently, to be inspired and engaged, not to be directed. Leaders today need to know how to direct and engage this new breed of worker.
Weakened communication skills: There is no secret that our communication skills have eroded in some fundamental ways. We communicate more than ever, but technology has created distance through the ability to share without interacting in person. To be an effective leader, we need to check our actions against those who effectively maintain a strong connection and deliver messages in a way that others can hear them and be inspired by them.
Seeking direction: I suspect that we all struggle to lead because we have observed when longstanding bastions of stability, such as government and big business, fail before our eyes. Traditional values have come under attack and we oftentimes seem to lack a moral compass by which to determine right and wrong. Leadership demands a clear sense of direction and a willingness to take a meaningful stand, even at the risk of personal status and wealth. This is why ethical leadership has gained such currency and support in recent years.
Clearly, leadership is an elusive concept, in part because of the complex roles and personalities of leaders and followers (or influencers and influences). The good news is that regardless of situation and circumstance, we all have the capacity to be difference makers and to demonstrate, in word and deed, a better way forward.