‘I know it when I see it’ – three understandings of leadership and their consequences

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How do you define leadership? When asked this question, many managers may react like Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart in his 1964 sentence on a movie suspected to be hardcore pornography: “I shall not today attempt further to define the kinds of material I understand to be embraced”, the judge explained, “but I know it when I see it.”

Every experienced manager will 'know leadership when he sees it'. One could let the matter rest with that, if only leadership development wasn’t a billion-dollar industry, and if definitions wouldn’t have consequences.

But they do have consequences. Because different understandings of leadership lead to different actions when it comes to developing leadership. In an earlier blog post on leadership definitions and the according glossary of leadership development, we distinguished three basic understandings of leadership:

First, there is the belief that leadership is a trait or a capability, that is something a leader has or something he or she is able to do.

A second strand of leadership thought defines it as a leader’s behavior or way to play.

Third and finally, there is the understanding of leadership as an ongoing process based in leader-follower relationships.

Let’s recognize in passing that this order of definitions more or less resembles the historical development of leadership thinking. Research nowadays, overall, is much less excited about traits than it is about uncovering the dynamics of leadership processes and relationships.

In practice, however, each of those perspectives have their plausibility – and each understanding leads to different consequences.

Put simply, if you (implicitly or explicitly) belief that leadership is a trait, the key lever for developing leadership is hiring and people selection. The logic is straight: You want to strengthen leadership – then you need to hire personalities who are leaders. And if you see yourself as a leader, you will hire people you consider to be like you.

If you understand leadership as something people do, or as a certain way of doing things, the primary intervention to strengthen leadership will be teaching and training. Again, the logic is straightforward: There are tricks to leading people – then let’s train leaders to perform those tricks.

What to do then, if you see leadership – along our third definition – as something that is a dynamic process emerging from leader-follower relations? You will probably not completely dispose your hiring processes or your leadership behavior training, because the traits and the behaviors of the people involved will have some effect on the dynamics of the relationship.

However, if you are attracted to the third definition, you will want to have a more holistic and systemic approach towards developing leadership. Context will be more important. Networks and the resulting relationships will come into view (because if there is no relationship, there can be no leadership). You will want to focus learning activities on the actual practice and relate it to the concrete challenges leaders face in pursuing your strategic objectives. You will be much more relaxed on who is leader and who is follower in terms of formal position (because ideally those are shifting roles within a dynamic process) or even abolish the formal distinction altogether. And you will give agency and room for reflection to the individual who is learning to lead, instead of drilling pre-defined competency models in classroom courses.

Check out the canvas at the heart of our leadership development kit to learn more about how to develop leadership: