Take a group of 20 or so smart people. Put them in a room. Ask them to share a story of the best leadership they have ever experienced – either leadership they demonstrated or leadership they witnessed. Then ask what the underlying leadership traits were.
The answers will nearly always look something like this: The leader set an example. He aligned values and actions. She had a vision for the future or a direction she wanted to go. And she got others to buy in. He sought less obvious opportunities and he was willing to experiment and take risks. She created the space for others to step in and work with each other. He recognized good work, applauded excellence and celebrated victories.
If the answers above sound like those offered by Kouzes and Posner in their best-selling book The Leadership Challenge, it’s because they’re similar or even the same. Kouzes and Posner describe the five practices of exemplary leadership as model the way, inspire a shared vision, challenge the process, enable others to act and encourage the heart.
Still, as simple as it sounds, there is more. Thousands of books and articles have been written about leadership over the years. Leadership definitions are everywhere. Leadership is provided by people you most expect it from and you least expect it from. Talk awhile with people on the topic of leadership and the stories spill out. It’s all around us. Ironically, a significant portion of real leadership is unrecognized.
Here’s a definition I like – in addition to the ones Kouzes and Posner put forth. It comes from Mel Toomey from the Generative Leadership Group.
Leadership is about bringing into existence what isn’t there yet and isn’t going to happen unless the leader does it, says Toomey. It’s about bringing something of value into existence. To do so, is an art.
By contrast, management is more science. It’s about improvement using tested, repeatable processes and methodologies. It’s about checklists, metrics and continuous improvement. Some people both lead and manage; they have both traits.
Management, says change management guru John Kotter, makes systems of people and technology work well day after day. Those systems include planning and budgeting, organizing and staffing, and controlling and problem solving.
By contrast, Kotter says, leadership creates the systems that managers manage and changes them in fundamental ways to take advantage of opportunities and to avoid hazards. Hence, leaders spend time creating vision and strategy, communicating and setting direction, motivating action, and aligning people. All, I say, in the service of bringing into existence what isn’t there yet.
Some people believe leaders are born, not made. In fact, some people believe it’s impossible to make leaders. I don’t buy that. True, as Toomey will tell you, some people are born with the stuff of leadership. But every one of us has the capacity to lead. And in the right circumstances, the one who has never stepped up before will take up the mantle and move his colleagues forward.
How do you teach people how to lead? I believe as do many of my colleagues that you create safe space, white space for people to walk into and try it out. My experience is creating such space and facilitating the discovery journey works, and works well.
It works because learning how to lead is discovering more about one’s self, one’s inner core. It’s about taking deeper and deeper cuts at being creative. It’s more than intellectual engagement; it’s about application. You can have all the skills, but at the end of the day, it’s about the art, putting together something that truly isn’t there yet. And that means not talking about it, but doing it.