Monday, March 11, 2013

Why Does Leadership Matter?

by Mike DeGrosky

This is an expanded version of a column first appearing as Thoughts on Leadership in the March/April 2012 issue of Wildfire magazine, the official publication of the International Association of Wildland Fire, published by Penton Media.

Since the dawn of recorded human history, people have shown a tremendous curiosity and  reoccupation with what I consider the big leadership question. Why do people follow other people? For students of leadership, that question leads to others, like: what is the fundamental nature and purpose of leadership? In other words, what is leadership and how does it work? People have always wanted to know how some people get other people to follow their lead and why people choose to allow themselves to be influenced.

I recently engaged my graduate students in a discussion in which I asked them three questions. Why leadership? What is important about leadership? Why does leadership matter? The ensuing discussion proved both interesting and illuminating and people presented a wide range of perspectives. As one might expect, their answers depended on their personal leadership experience. As we kicked ideas around, I started thinking about my own outlook on these questions.

Why Leadership?

We know, with the help of Egyptian hieroglyphs, people have maintained a conscious concept of leadership for at least 3,000 years. We need to remember that we did not invent leadership. Leadership is a deeply seated human drive and human need; a part of the human condition. However, we must also remember, besides being a fundamental human need, leadership also represents a modern social construct. We call it "leadership" only because we decided to call it that. We have been observing interaction between people that bring about influence and change for millennia. We needed something to call it and so, "leadership" it was.

As a social construct, the concept of leadership must keep up with societal changes over time. As our society changes (in big ways, I am not talking about fads and popular culture), our understanding of leadership must change along with society, or it becomes irrelevant. For example, in the late 15th Century, people regarded Niccolo Machiavelli as the innovative leadership guru of his time, a Renaissance man who actually lived during the Renaissance. Today, calling a leader “Machiavellian” is an insult, typically reserved for people who use power inappropriately.

What Is Important about Leadership?

For me, the answer to this question rests on growing evidence that leadership appears to represent a deep-seated human need. Leadership scholars are beginning to suggest that leadership is, at least in part, a biological response to our environment, an instinct if you will. Not surprisingly, some leading thinkers believe that leadership has had human evolutionary implications. In other words, as a species, we are who we are and where we are, in-part, because of leadership relationships between people.

However, despite exploring leadership academically for more than 100 years, we still have no universal definition of leadership or unified leadership theory. That is a problem. We cannot really understand a thing and how it works if we cannot define the thing we are studying. If skunks are your thing, and we define a skunk as a small, black-and-white animal with long fluffy tail, we can find ourselves examining a cat, while trying to understand a skunk. That is part of why the leadership literature can prove so confusing and unhelpful to practitioners. Over the years, we described all sorts of human behavior as leadership and leadership as all kinds of human behavior.

That is why I encourage all students of leadership to adopt a working definition of leadership. Finding your working definition can prove a journey in itself. Dive into the leadership literature, and you will find a variety of definitions, many of which remain anchored to old-school leadership thinking from the 1970s and 1980s.

Frequent readers know that I like a definition devised by Joseph Rost, author and Professor Emeritus in the Leadership Studies program at San Diego State University. I direct people to Rost’s definition because his book (Leadership for the 21st Century) derived from a tremendous piece of scholarship and because Rost’s definition has proven very influential, serving as the foundation of several university-based leadership studies programs. Rost defines leadership as "an influence relationship among leaders and followers who intend real changes that reflect their mutual purposes."

I think we can best learn about leadership theory by thinking critically about concepts and breaking them down to do so. For example, we can break Rost's definition into four basic components.
  1. The essence of leadership lies in influence, the ability to affect another person’s attitudes, beliefs, values, or behavior.
  2. Leadership is a relationship, something that happens between people.
  3. The purpose of leadership is to create and promote change, and that people involved in leadership are not just the subject of change, but also the driving force behind it.
  4. In the leadership environment, at our best, we pursue what all parties want. At least, our pursuits should be in the interest of all parties, not just change desired by leader or the organization without regard for constituents.
From this perspective, followers play an active role in the leadership process. Leadership is a process in which leaders and followers engage together and, judging from trends over the last 30 years, leadership will become increasingly dispersed, collaborative, situational and provisional.

Why Do I Think Leadership Matters?

I think leadership matters because, as I mentioned earlier, leadership represents a natural human drive and human need. In short, we cannot avoid the human yearning to:
  • Gain some sense of self-mastery and self-efficacy, to contribute, to have an impact
  • To feel oriented, reassured and anchored; particularly in times of stress, fear and turbulence
  • Cope with and adapt to an increasingly complex, inter-connected, and demanding world
  • Serve the common good
In the organizational context, leadership matters because it helps direct and mobilize people and their id. Leadership is a process by which we create movement and constructive, adaptive change; establish direction, align people, and motivate as well as inspire one another.


Biography Mike DeGrosky is Chief Executive Officer of the Guidance Group, a consulting organization specializing in the human and organizational aspects of the fire service, and an adjunct instructor in leadership studies for Fort Hays State University. Follow Mike on Twitter @guidegroup or via LinkedIn.

Reprinted from the Guidance Group, Inc. website with permission from Mike DeGrosky.

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