What is a Leader?

See also: Leadership Trait Theory

Ever since we learnt to speak and work together, certain members of the race have sought to become ‘leaders’.  So why is it that, here in the 21st Century, there are still so many questions and still so much debate about what a leader is and does?

This page defines what is meant by the term 'leader’. We demonstrate how we are all capable of being a leader today or tomorrow.  Even if only for today or tomorrow.

The Oxford English Dictionary defines a leader (in human terms) as:

  • the person who leads or commands a group, organization, or country: the leader of a protest group a natural leader

  • (also Leader of the House) British a member of the government officially responsible for initiating business in Parliament.

In either case there is a degree of formality about it:

  • A whole organisation accepts one person as its ‘leader’
  • By virtue of that badge of rank, the leader has formal authority and power.

However, there are three likely dangers in this view:

  1. Organisations come in many shapes and sizes; political parties, governments, charities, businesses or families.

    By inference, if an organisation has only one leader, that person alone is the source of all ideas. That person alone is the maker of all decisions.  The rest of the organisation must, therefore, be followers; ‘sheep’, who take no initiative and make no decisions.  These people are also free of responsibility for outcomes of their actions.

    This presents a big problem for the organisation as a whole and followers as individuals;

    • There is no synergy,
    • There is little initiative
    • There is little incentive for anyone to do anything “good” save follow orders.
    • There is little reason for people to not do “bad” things so long as they are within the letter of the law.
  1. Since the concept of a leader is a 'job title', the leader must be the one leading every minute of every day.

    He or she may not be less than perfect at any time.  This presents a big problem for the leader. He or she must be right every time. He or she must also be seen to be right every time.  The leader must be morally and technically infallible.  He or she is always on a pedestal.  Each and every act and word (business and personal) is subject to scrutiny and being judged by all.

    Sadly this kind of infallibility is not a constant for any human being; we are all idiots some of the time. To err is human.

  2. The longer a formal leader is in post, the greater the gap between the leader and the led becomes.

    The leader becomes less tolerant of independent thought, and the led become less capable of it.  At this point, if it is to survive ‘After the Leader’, an organisation has to look seriously at succession planning.  Sadly that succession planning is still the responsibility of the leader (otherwise it is likely to be interpreted as mutiny).

The past has showed time and again that:

  • Families with a commanding father or mother can tend to be dysfunctional.
  • Nations with a cult of personality around a single “great helmsman” tend to suffer in the long run.
  • Companies which are ruled by the iron hand of their founder are lost when the founder dies or is shown to have had feet of clay.

Modern Definitions of 'Leader'

Fredrik Arnander, in his 2013 book “We Are All Leaders”, suggests a different approach. His stated vision is;-

We are all leaders. Leadership is not a position, it is a mindset

Fredrik Arnander

Why is Arnander proposing this difference of opinion?

“To build organisations with the agility and focus to succeed in the modern business world”

Clearly it is vital for any organisation that initiative, ideas, authority, decision making, liability, respect and kudos be shared out ‘to each according to his needs and from each according to his ability.’

It is not the aim of this piece to address “leadership” as a series of traits or behaviours; however it is not possible to divide leaders from leadership.

In an article in Nigeria’s Premium Times, Bamidele Ademola-Olateju states:

A leader goes in the front, leads the way and by his actions; people follow.

This is in contrast to a “ruler”; rulers rule by the use of their power and authority, backing this up if necessary with heavy handedness.  The piece refers to leaders and rulers in a national sense.  However, the same can be said for people at the top of any organisation, be it political, commercial or even religious.

Therefore for anyone to claim to actually be a leader, as opposed to being ‘The Leader’, he or she must have real followers.  These are people who follow out of choice, rather than compulsion.

A leader may rise to a state where people follow them for many years and through various incarnations.  A fine example is the late, Nelson Mandela, who moved from personal commitment to small scale political activism to national presidency to world statesmanship. Mandela embodied a vision and commitment for many years. In contrast to the previous quote, Mandela preferred to think of a leader, leading from behind.

It is better to lead from behind and to put others in front, especially when you celebrate victory when nice things occur. You take the front line when there is danger. Then people will appreciate your leadership

Nelson Mandela

Emergent Leaders

A leader may also emerge from the crowd for just a few moments.

This could be a ‘serious’ matter or an entirely frivolous one. For instance, a young woman named Claire Pepper was knocked down whilst cycling in London.  She was injured and trapped beneath the car, unable to breathe due to the weight pressing down on her chest.  A single passer-by took a leader role straight away. He gathered nine others who became his followers and together they lifted the car from on top of Claire, saving her life until the medics arrived.  After the panic was over the individual ceased to be a leader and melted back into the crowd.

On a less serious note, an example of 'frivolous leadership'. Derek Sivers uploaded a video on YouTube entitled ‘Leadership Lessons from Dancing Guy’, which clearly shows how a person can, with no particular vision, and certainly no rhetoric or verbal communication, be a leader in style or fashion.

Leaders come in all shapes and sizes and lead in all different aspects of human life and endeavour.  We are all capable of being leaders somewhere and at sometime.  We simply have to motivate ourselves or be motivated to lead.

Further Reading from Skills You Need

The Skills You Need Guide to Leadership

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