“At its most basic, the ‘essence’ of leadership – as an individual leader – leaves out followers, and without followers you cannot be a leader. Indeed, this might be the simplest definition of leadership: ‘having followers’.”
- Keith Grint, Leadership: A Very Short Introduction, Oxford Press
There is 1000 years of reading available to anyone who wants to understand what leadership is and what it is not and what it might become. Let me save you some time.
Maybe 997 years.
Most of what has been written on how to lead, what great leading looks like and how to develop, falls into the “interesting but not useful” category. This is because most leadership books are about developing the individual. Most all propose pedagogies that are leader-centric; how wonderfully self-absorbed these books are.
These authors have spent much time researching and diagnosing the human qualities of an effective leader. These qualities are often captured in the phrase “the great man theory of leadership.” Just that phase should put off 50% of the world’s readers.
This is not to say there are not some gem books written by wise people. Robert Greenleaf, John Gardner, Barbara Kellerman, Ron Heifetz, Keith Grint and others have all contributed depth of understanding on what it takes to effectively lead. These are serious writers putting forward important ideas. No airport literature to be found here.
The lede that is buried in most leadership books and that Grint exposes, is the weak focus on followers and the work of mobilizing a movement. Building and sustaining a movement is difficult work. We are watching how difficult it is for the world to stay focused on the war in Ukraine four months on. There are many factors that need to fall the right way for the war to end with Ukraine still free.
One problem is how the leaders in Europe and Joe Biden in the US can sustain the focus and commitment of the people in their countries as the war drags on and domestic issues arise at home. Here in the US, Biden’s Ukraine strategy is having to compete with inflation, $5/gallon gas, rising food prices and, as of this week, the Supreme Court decision to overturn Roe vs. Wade.
Building and sustaining a movement is the hardest work of leading. It calls for personal emotional stamina, an evolving narrative that matches changing conditions, addressing the changing demands of the factions that make up the larger group and the patience for deep listening and getting up on the balcony to see the dance that is happening below.
When I stop and absorb the demands that leaders must attend, I am awed by their acceptance of the role of leading and I back off my knee-jerk opinions on how they are doing their job.
I may not be fit for purpose, so I best jump in the ‘follower’ cohort and lend a helping hand.