Thinking Differently about Leadership

This post is spurred by a couple of interesting pieces in the most recent edition of the University of Alberta New Trail (alumni magazine).  Deconstructing Leadership (read here) and Leadership without Bombast (read here) are both thought-provoking.

“There are three elements of leadership:  vision, understanding the situation and the courage to act.”  (Dr. Richard Fields, quoted in Deconstructing Leadership)  I would add two other essential elements:  a moral compass (to my way of thinking leadership always has a strong moral element:  the demagogue is not a leader); and, relationship skills and practices (the capacity to provoke engagement and commitment).

The interesting thing about the consideration of ‘leadership’ at this time is that we are starting to explore the matter of followership.  Arguably, they are not two distinct fields of study.  Arguably, we need to move beyond the study of leadership, or even the study of leadership that acknowledges the importance of something distinct and complementary, called followership.  We should be studying that which, in the polis, we call citizenship, which always engages both leadership and followership.  (There is no correspondingly inclusive word for simultaneous leadership/followership in the workplace, or playspace, or the academic community.)

Throughout my life, including the years I was Minister of Education, I have been sometimes the leader and sometimes the follower.  In company with the same person, from one occasion to another she or he has sometimes been my follower and sometimes my leader.  I have followed the moral leadership of my secretary (or a classroom teacher, or the President of the school boards’ asssociation) more than once, because she could keep her eye on the right prize when I was feeling up to my waist in alligators.  The yin and yang of leadership/followership has been my experience in married life, in the service clubs I have been part of, in other workplaces, and in civic action.  I have observed the same reality in the life and work of Peter Lougheed, Joe Clark, Robert Stanfield, Tommy Douglas, Lester Pearson, and many, many others.

It follows that successful, discerning and courageous leaders operate in the context of discerning and courageous followers.  (Germany, in 1933, was as much a failure of followership as it was a failure of leadership:  Alberta in 2014 is as much a failure of followership as it is a failure of leadership.)

I adopt MacGregor Burns argument that “leadership” is not so much a label for the characteristics of a person (the leader) as it is a label for the characteristics of the relationship between the “leader” and the “followers”.

Which brings us to Kim Campbell’s description of her leadership style as “interactive”.  I like the term.  It is quite suggestive of Burns’ description of leadership as being the outcome of the relationship between the leader and the followers.  Leadership accomplishes more when it is inclusive, respectful, collaborative, reciprocal, non-ideological, and creative.

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