Context is Everything

I just finished reading Barbara Kellerman's new book, "The End of Leadership." (I'll be reviewing it Skills-for-leaders43 in my upcoming newsletter). While I disagree with Dr. Kellerman on several aspects of her premise, the book prompted me to think more on this issue of management versus leadership. If you've followed my blog for awhile, you know I think this is mostly a useless distinction, but it is one that we've struggled with in (as Kellerman calls it) the "leadership industry" for a long time.

I think the problem is that we are making distinctions between two ideas that are not, actually, distinct. I would argue now that management is a type of leadership.  Managers are leaders. Teachers are leaders. Politicians are leaders. Leaders are those whom we follow, rather by will or compulsion. Simply put, leaders take the lead. The question then is not whether managers and leaders are different, but what is the purpose and the context of the leader. We shouldn't be concerned so much about whether a person is or isn't, but rather whether or not a person is a….wait for it…GOOD leader.

 Yikes. That's a value judgement and of course we don't like doing that. Good is in the eye of the beholder, eh?

Here is where I agree with Kellerman's ideas. It is impossible to look at leadership without also looking at context. And, of course, this complicates things immensely. We like to package things as if they are universal when, in fact, situation determines much if not all of what is effective leadership. We can teach techniques and skills and concepts that may help leaders develop their abilities, but we can only give a nod to context. This is why having a mentor or coach is so important because these are on-the-ground methods of learning what works and what doesn't.

I still believe there are more good leaders than bad and that what we see and hear on a daily basis revolves around the visible and powerful few who have lost their ability to lead. Or who have taken their followers down a path developed through self-interest and lack of integrity. Let's quit worrying about unimportant distinctions and start focusing on what it takes to be a strong, unselfish, and effective leader.



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