Why The Way We Talk About Leadership Is Killing Today's Businesses

If all you're concerned about is carving a straight line to the top, you're perpetuating today's issue with how we perceive real leadership.

We’ve created a trap for ourselves in the way that we talk about leadership. It’s a trap that can warp our behavior, worsen our leadership, and set back the very goals we set out to achieve. It’s a trap built of words and mindsets that can be hard to break. But recognizing that trap is half the battle.

The trap comes from the two different meanings of the word leadership.

On the one hand, leadership is used to refer to a role and a position. It’s the people at the top of the organization, the ones who set the direction and keep the business on course. It’s the private offices and the big paychecks, something many of us aspire towards.

The problem is that leadership as a position does not give the organization direction, ensure productivity, or even necessarily create good leaders.

Those who rely on their position as the primary form of leadership are the ones who tell people what to do without explaining why, expect to be listened to for the size of their office and not the quality of their ideas, and alienate employees through self-aggrandizement and a failure to listen.

Leadership positions are a nice acknowledgement of the achievements of leaders and a way to single out those worth listening to, but they are not what we should aim for when we say we want to achieve leadership.

The activity of leadership

Real leadership is an activity. It is engaging with people, explaining to people, motivating people. It is giving them not just direction but an enthusiasm and a sense of momentum to keep the business moving no matter the challenges you face.

Positional leadership is about asserting authority and control over others. Real leadership is about letting go of that control, unleashing others’ energy to achieve great things.

Ed Catmull, co-founder and head of Pixar, has shown how real leadership works. In dealing with leaks from within the studio he did not rely on his position of authority to tell staff what they should and should not do. He explained the problem with the leaks, creating a culture in which everyone could see the harm that came from this behavior. He engaged everyone in keeping the business on track.

Real leadership means emerging from your office, listening as much as talking, finding out what makes your colleagues passionate and energized for the task, and tapping into that.

Real leadership is action.

Following the right compass

The other problem with positional leadership is that many see it as a goal, and rather than drive fruitful ambition this can often stifle growth.

If we treat leadership as a goal, something to be reached and then settled into, then we lose the incentive to keep improving and adapting to the times. Once the goal has been reached, the leadership journey is complete. We have leadership and the office to show it.

But real leadership, leadership that makes a positive difference, has a different destination. It pushes towards the goals of your organization and the people within it. It is something that leaders have to keep working at, finding more effective ways to achieve those goals. The end is never reached, but to keep striving towards it you need to keep learning new tools as the environment you work within changes.

Leadership as an activity is more engaged and engaging than any position of leadership can ever be. It is about learning and growing. It recognizes that position is not the achievement, but merely acknowledgement of what has been achieved.

[Image: Flickr user Misha Dontsov]

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  • Real leadership, the kind not working from a seat of power, recognizes that employees at all levels of the organization need to lead for the business to reach its potential. Engage workers in the shared purpose, give them authority to make decisions and accountability for those decisions, and watch the enterprise thrive.