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"What is leadership" is the wrong question


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Experts disagree about what leadership is, and their definitions are as memorable as a corporation’s mission statement.

Part of the problem is that we define leadership by asking the wrong question: What is leadership? There's a better question to get at what leadership is.

This is a SlideShare version from Gary A. DePaul's leadership blog:

Published in: Leadership & Management
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"What is leadership" is the wrong question

  1. 1. “What Is Leadership?” Is the Wrong Question SlideShare Blog
  2. 2. Leadership: Easy to recognize but hard to explain Everyone talks about it; few understand it. Most people want it; few achieve it. There are over fifty definitions and descriptions of it in my personal files. What is this intriguing subject we call leadership?  John C. Maxwell1 Experts disagree about what leadership is, and their definitions are as memorable as a corporation’s mission statement. Even Maxwell recognizes the challenge:
  3. 3. How we think about Leadership is changing But contrary to conventional thinking, I believe the bottom line in leadership isn’t how far we advance ourselves but how far we advance others. That is achieved by serving others and adding value to their lives.  John C. Maxwell2 Leadership’s meaning is changing. For the past thirty years – especially within the last five, experts have written about a leadership approach that deviates from traditional thinking. Look at these quotations:
  4. 4. How we think about Leadership is changing The rank of office is not what makes someone a leader. Leadership is the choice to serve others with or without any formal rank.  Simon Sinek4 The goal of a leader is to give no orders.  Simon Sinek3 [Leaders] are not focused on themselves, their individual departments, or the work associated with their functional area.  Kevin and Jackie Freiberg5
  5. 5. How we think about Leadership is changing Leadership is not about who you are; it’s about what you do.  James M. Kouzes, and Barry Z. Posner9 Leadership, more than anything else, is about the way we think.  John G. Miller7 Everyone is a leader in some part of their job or their life.  Ken Blanchard and Garry Ridge8 …leadership is about the action you take.  James M. Kouzes, and Barry Z. Posner10
  6. 6. How we think about Leadership is changing Empowerment is a necessary step because we’ve been accustomed to disempowerment. Empowerment is needed to undo all those top- down, do-what-you’re- told, be-a-team-player messages that result from our leader-follower model.  L. David Marquet12 Instead of more “leadership” resulting in more “followership,” I practiced less leadership, resulting in more leadership at every level of the command.  L. David Marquet11
  7. 7. What is leadership? If you’re going to define traditional leadership, you ask, “What is leadership?” That question won’t produce a definition that represents the evolving leadership meaning and all of those quotations. If you’re going to define leadership in the 21st Century, you have to ask: “Why practice leadership?”
  8. 8. Why practice leadership? This question makes it easier to eliminate the wrong kind of things from the definition. You want to exclude how and what statements. So, to answer this question, consider this as a possible answer: The art of getting things done through people Most definitions that I’ve read usually describe leadership as a way to accomplish something like a shared goal, purpose, objective, or vision. If this is the purpose, people then use leadership practices to influence a team, group, or organization to take action that gets you closer to achieving something.
  9. 9. Why practice leadership? Here’s the problem: The art of getting things done through people is actually Mary Parker Follet’s definition of management.13 According to Follet, management – not leadership – is about getting things done through others. So, if the reason for practicing leadership isn’t about accomplishing something, then why do we practice leadership?
  10. 10. The Evolved Purpose of Leadership As part of the subscription to Skillsoft’s Books 24×7, David Marquet facilitated a live event entitled, Turn This Ship Around! How to Create Leadership at Every Level. During the talk, Marquet said something remarkable: …leadership is not about getting people to do stuff. It’s about getting people to think… …I believe that what’s going to win in the 21st Century and in the future is organizations that allow everyone in their organizations to think.  L. David Marquet14
  11. 11. The Evolved Purpose of Leadership Marquet is on target to getting at the why of leadership. With 21st Century Leadership, the focus is to develop others both mentally and morally. No longer is the emphasis on roles such as leaders and followers or on achieving ends.
  12. 12. The Evolved Purpose of Leadership Here’s why we practice leadership: to help others develop the mental and moral qualities, capabilities, and behaviors. Another way to state this is: to help others build character. Without the need of having followers, including direct reports, anyone from any role can practice this approach to leadership.
  13. 13. The Evolved Purpose of Leadership This is my formal – and maybe not so memorable – definition of leadership: A bidirectional performance- improvement discipline that is designed to mature mental and moral qualities, capabilities, and behaviors. Here’s the informal answer to the question, why practice leadership? To help others build character On my website, I’ve uploaded a table showing the leadership definition with related principles, practices, and results.
  14. 14. Who practices leadership? To be accomplished at leadership, you apply leadership practices while performing a formal role. These practices aren’t limited to managers and roles with direct reports. Anyone at any career level can apply them to help others build character. Doing so, incidentally, leads to substantial improvements team culture, business results, and ultimately societal results.
  15. 15. Want to learn more? Check out a preview of the Nine Practices book on In this highly praised guide, learn about how leadership is radically changing and how you can apply this at your work and in your personal life.
  16. 16. About Gary A. DePaul, PhD, CPT Gary A. DePaul has two decades of experience as a practitioner and scholar of leadership, has worked in fortune 500 companies, and consults with organizations to improve leadership practices. Gary speaks at conferences, companies, firms, associations, and association chapters.
  17. 17. Endnotes1. John C. Maxwell, Developing the Leader Within You (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1993), 1. 2. John C. Maxwell, The 21 Irrefutable Laws of Leadership: Follow Them and People Will Follow You (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, 2007), 51. 3. Simon Sinek, Leaders Eat Last: Why Some Teams Pull Together and Others Don’t (New York: Penguin Group, 2014), 146. 4. Ibid, 66. 5. Kevin Freiberg and Jackie Freiberg, Nuts! Southwest Airlines’ Crazy Recipe for Business and Personal Success (Austin: Bard Press, 1996), 331. 6. Ibid, 299. 7. John G. Miller, QBQ!: The Question Behind the Question, What to Really Ask Yourself to Eliminate Blame, Victim Thinking, Complaining, and Procrastination (New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 2004), 95. 8. Ken Blanchard and Garry Ridge, Helping People Win at Work: A Business Philosophy Called “Don’t Mark My Paper, Help Me Get an A” (Upper Saddle River, NJ: FT Press, 2009), 137. 9. James M. Kouzes, and Barry Z. Posner, The Leadership Challenge: How to Make Extraordinary Things Happen in Organizations, 5th edn. (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2012), 15. 10. Ibid, 332. 11. L. David Marquet, Captain, US Navy (Retired). Turn the Ship Around! A True Story Turning Followers into Leaders, (New York: Penguin Group, 2012), 204. 12. Ibid, 212. 13. Ideas on Management, Mary parker Follett (1868-1933), (accessed October 29, 2015). 14. L. David Marquet, Live Event: Turn the Ship Around! How to Create Leadership at Every Level. Skillsoft Books24x7, 2014, http://sp8-$9227:_ss_video:65944 (Accessed January 10, 2015).