Who exercises leadership? “Why, leaders do”, you might reply. And what do leaders do when they undertake leadership? “Well, they lead others of course.”
The terms leader, lead (or leading) and leadership are often used as if they are virtually interchangeable; largely an expression of each other.
But does such usage restrict our understanding particularly of leadership, and the work of the leadership – which, let me declare, is a passion of mine?
For me, ‘leader’ can refer to a role designation (“we’re recruiting a few finance leader”) or an individual with exceptional characteristics or achievements.
‘Leading’ implies going first or making the running, pointing the way, often though not always acting from a position of authority. “She has led her team through some tough challenges during the pandemic.” “He is leading the development of the new app.”
Surely, then, leadership is simply a matter of leaders leading?
What, though, if we think of leadership as a practice – a practice centring on building shared understandings (as far as possible) on preferred futures and current realities with contentious issues to draw forth energy and action to enable desired change?
Leadership understood as a practice is different in important ways from concepts of leaders and leading. You don’t have to be a leader to enact leadership. And not everything leaders do is leadership. And leadership as a meaning-making process has only limited connection with notions of going first, signposting the way.
Let’s take care in using the terms leader, lead and leadership – especially to avoid unconsciously binding them together. Doing so might help reveal fundamentally different ways of understanding leadership.
Such clarification might also be helpful to numerous managers, professionals, community members and others who potentially contribute to leadership action but don’t necessarily see themselves as leaders or leading. More care with language use might also assist acknowledged leaders in reflecting on whether what they are doing is leadership. Perhaps it’s more management – though that’s another story…
Originally posted on LinkedIn January 28th 2022
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