There is absolutely no doubt in my mind; each of us has crossed paths with someone who could be described as a ‘leader’ at some point in our personal, professional or social lives. It matters not where or when we’re born, what our background is or how much education we’ve had. We all tend to know when we’ve been in the company of a leader. Not so much because of what they said or what they did, but because of how they made us feel (about them and about ourselves) and because of the positive impact they had on us and those around us. The impression is so remarkable that, when personally asked about it sometime later, we can recall the encounter in vivid detail. More than this…we actually talk about it without being asked. And, if more than one of us experienced the encounter, it inevitably gets recalled organizationally, during water-cooler conversations, lunch breaks and team meetings. This happens with such voracity that the story could border on legend as time progresses. And it would seem that, no matter how long the encounter, we emerge a little better off and somewhat lost in amazement and wonder. We also emerge with a willingness to follow this individual…to appoint him/her as our leader, if given the opportunity.
This response to a Real Leadership encounter is not unexpected. The etymology of leadership suggests that its roots are submerged in the idea of movement or advancement by appointment. In Theory and Practice of Leadership, Roger Gill does a masterful job of explaining how the term ‘leader’ was historically used:
The word ‘Lead’ comes from the Old English ‘laedan’, corresponding to the Old Saxon ‘ledian’ and Old High German ‘leiten’, meaning ‘take with one’, to ‘show the way’ (Hoad, 1988). Ledere was the term for a person who shows other people the path to take and guides them safely along the journey (Kets de Vries and Florent-Treacy, 1999: 5). The Old Icelandic derivative ‘leidha’ meant ‘the person in front’, referring to the person who guided ships through the pack-ice in spring. The word ‘leader’ appeared in the English language in the thirteenth century, but ‘leadership’ appeared only in the early nineteenth century. (Gill)
According to the Online Etymology Dictionary, the suffix “-ship” comes from the Old English ‘-sciepe,’ and the Anglian ‘-scip,’ which means “state, condition of being,” which is from the base ‘*skap-,’ which means “to create, ordain, appoint.” So a basic understanding of the term “leadership” includes achieving the state or condition of being capable as a leader, and then, by the appointment of others, showing them the path to take and guiding them safely along the journey. This movement by appointment requires: a) that we first become someone capable of leading and b) that we get “appointed” by others to lead.
But movement by appointment doesn’t stand alone in the etymology of Leadership. The term ‘leader’ took on additional association with words like passion, patience and suffering as freedom-loving Gothic leaders stood against high taxes, Roman prejudice and government corruption in the late 4th Century. And let’s not forget that the suffix ‘-ship’ is associated with the idea of creativity or, more literally, “to create a thing of value.”
So a leader is really someone who becomes capable of leading and is then appointed by others to move upward and/or outward with passion, patience and suffering to create something of value.
Seems straight-forward enough, doesn’t it? Well, if you’ve been at this as long as I have, you’ve likely made a number of observations about leaders along the way. And, if you’re like me, some of those observations have really made you scratch your head trying to make sense of it all. I don’t say that hypothetically. I say that because of more than 29 years of professional experiences and numerous conversations I’ve had along the way about this idea of leadership. Whether conversing with family, friends, co-workers, clients, fellow volunteers or those considered civic and business leaders, I continue to find a number of consistent observations.
Perhaps the most consistent observation is how truly rare our encounters with real leaders are. Yes! Just as we know when we’ve encountered a leader, we know when we haven’t. And when we haven’t, we know, and can easily recall, the negative impact it had on us personally, and those around us organizationally. My own experience validates this. Since 1984, I can count on one hand the number of real leaders I’ve had the privilege of encountering in a direct-reporting relationship. This may not seem significant until you consider that I’ve held over 41 professional and social roles, including 31 unique positions with 16 organizations spanning 12 career fields and seven industries in the commercial sector and 10 positions with seven organizations in the government and non-profit sectors.
Another observation is regarding the classes of leaders we encounter. By my estimation, there are two distinct classes:
Compounding this observation is the fact that one of these leaders is an imposter (a fake) and, unfortunately, it’s the class of leader found most often: leaders-in-position. Interestingly enough, this class of leader may actually hold a high rank or title in the organization, but it begs a question: “What should they be called if no one is actually following them?” If they are leaders at all it would have to be Fake Leadership, which stands in polar opposition to what this book is about: Real Leadership!