He was a leader of more than ordinary mediocrity. –Leo Tolstoy, ‘War and Peace’

CONSIDER Gentle Reader that today, more than ever our need for leaders is urgent.  A major challenge when it comes to choosing and/or recognizing leaders is that we still have little agreement as to the definition of ‘leader.’ 

Leaders are defined in term of tasks – setting goals, motivating people, evaluating people.  To complicate matters, this is what ‘managers’ are charged with doing and this is also what many ‘leaderless’ teams are also charged with doing. 

A leader is also defined as one who provides the vision [Greenleaf’s ‘Big Dream’].  Yet, many visionaries are not followed.  Some are openly disparaged. 

Then there are transactional or transformational leaders.  Both Hitler and Stalin would qualify.

And, as you and I know, there are servant-leaders.  There are, to further complicate things serving-leaders & service-leaders.  These three terms are similar AND the dynamics and core values are quite different.

Now, there is one irrefutable definition of ‘leader’: a leader is someone people follow.  Any person with followers, liberator or oppressor, transformational visionary or transactional problem solver, dictator or benevolent autocrat or servant-leader, is a leader. 

Given this, there are, it seems to me, two essential – and challenging – questions about leaders and leadership that must be addressed:

  • Why do people follow this person?  How do leaders gain and keep followers?  Do people follow by ‘inspiration’ or by ‘coercion’ or by ‘manipulation’ or by ‘seduction/promises’ or by a desire to be taken care of or by. . .
  • How do people follow the leader?  Do they follow ‘blindly?’  Do they ‘comply’ – do what they are told?  Do they ‘imitate’ the leader? 

I am thinking of William Ayot’s poem: ‘The Contract – A Word from the Led.’  Here is an excerpt from his poem:

And in the end we follow them –

simply because of who they are: the man, the woman. . .

We give them our trust.

What we seek in return is that they stay true.

Given Ayot’s words, consider the following questions:

  • ‘And in the end we follow them’ – WHO do you follow?  WHY?  WHO follows you?  WHY?
  • ‘We give them our trust.’ – WHO do you give your trust to?  WHY?  WHO gives you their trust?  WHY?  DO you LEAD with trust or must others ‘earn’ your trust? [Are people inherently trust-worthy?]
  • ‘What we seek in return is that they stay true.’ – WHAT does it mean ‘to stay true?’  WHAT must the leader ‘stay true to’?

Consider that leadership always implies a relationship between the leader and the led.  ‘Leadership’ is a by-product of this relationship.

Consider that leadership ALWAYS exists within a context.  Leaders who gain followers in one context may not attract followers in another [Consider Winston Churchill who was not followed before nor after WWII but was followed unhesitatingly during WWII].  


Consider the following:

  • The leaders who are motivated to achieve the common good
  • Who have the qualities required to gain willing followers in a particular culture, at a historical moment when leadership becomes essential to meet the challenges of that time and place
  • Leaders who, then, are needed within their contexts (present and ‘future’)
  • The context continues to change – for example, the context of a given organization today is not the same as it was 15 years ago – and with the rate of change we can assume that the context may well significantly – if not dramatically – change during the next 8-10 years
  • In our Country, the context was an industrial context, then it developed into an information context, and we are currently imbedded in a knowledge context [knowledge workers in our culture are highly valued] and it appears as if we are in the emerging stages of evolving to a ‘conceptual’ context [creativity, innovation, empathy, multiple-intelligences and relationships become the new ‘property’]

Given where we are – not even considering where we might be in 8-10 years – we currently need at least three types of leaders

  • Strategic Leaders – communicate a vision with a compelling sense of purpose
  • Operational Leaders – build the organization and infuse energy that transforms visions into results
  • Network/bridge-building Leaders – facilitate the understanding and trust that turns different types of specialists into collaborators [think: HealthCare Systems, for example]

These three roles will, generally, be filled by different people for each requires different skills, capabilities and personalities.  Because they will be required to work together they all have to have the ability to understand one another and value one another and work hard at developing caring and working relationships with one another.  Together they also have to be able to understand the diverse mix of people they want to follow them.

Consider that to describe the leadership we need, we can’t extrapolate from the past.  People have changed – both would-be leaders and potential followers.  People today respond to different qualities in leaders than they did even 15 years ago.  For example, young people today (generally, it seems people under 30) are less likely to idealize leaders as father substitutes [a dependency model of leadership that emerged with the industrial revolution] and they tend to be more critical of parental figures in general, we can’t lead in ways that worked in the past. 

However, fear and high anxiety can cause any of us to regress – to want that charismatic or benevolent patriarch or authoritarian father or even a ‘boss’ or ‘tyrant’ to make things better [if we find one that can do this once our anxiety is lowered we ‘rebel’ or if, in our perspective, this leader ‘fails us’ then we will also ‘rebel’].  We move from idealizing the leader to severely criticizing the leader.  Moreover there is a tendency to criticize our leaders with great intensity while seeking to be ‘non-responsible’ ourselves.

Consider that servant-leadership, as a concept, a philosophy, an attitude, a way of being, will provide a tap-root that if nurtured and sustained over time that will help ensure the development of leaders [role-defined and situational] who will be inherently ethical, moral, caring, awake, aware, intentional and purposeful and who will choose to be unconditionally response-able and who will choose to appropriately respond and appropriately react with moral integrity at all times. 

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