The philosophy of Leadership, Part II

What exactly is leadership?

There are over a thousand definitions of leadership found in the literature. Pick one! Of course, we offer what works best for us in our work with students (and with managers, government officials, community organizers, health care providers, and educational administrators), but we don’t claim the last word on “defining” leadership. It’s been said, “You can’t capture a river in a bucket,” and we believe the same can be said about trying to define leader­ship. We can investigate, analyze, and examine leadership, but in this endeavor we too often fail to capture its true essence.

Historian Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr. has pointed out: “The very concept of leadership implies the proposition that individuals make a difference to history.” This point is underscored by our stories of ordinary people at their personal best as leaders. When Philip L. Smith, as president and chief oper­ating officer of General Foods, discussed leadership with groups of senior managers in the company’s executive development program, he asked each to “share a story about a leader or leaders who have had a profound impact upon his or her life and values.” As a result of this free and open exchange, he reported that participants get a strong message: “Just as they have been influenced by leaders, so too can they have a lasting and compelling impact on the people they manage.”

Virtually all of us can name at least one leader whose compelling impact we have felt. Sometimes it’s a well-known figure out of the past who changed the course of history. Sometimes we choose contemporary role models who served as examples of success. Still others are those who helped us learn— coaches, teachers, parents, friends, managers. Leaders make a difference, and that’s why we care so much about the development of leadership, especially among college students. In a series of studies involving college student lead­ers (summarized later), leadership is consistently linked with organizational effectiveness across clubs, teams, dorms, fraternity/sorority chapters, com­munity services, and student government.

We believe leadership is a set of skills. Like any skill, with the proper motivation and desire, with practice and feedback, through role models and coaching, this skill can be strengthened, honed, and enhanced. The set of skills articulated in The Leadership Challenge do not explain 100 percent of the variance when it comes to leadership—but what social science model does? We explain a substantial (and statistically significant) amount of the variance, and our framework is a relatively simple and understandable place to start learning about being a leader. This framework has proved quite use­ful and robust across a variety of disciplines not only for teaching about lead­ership but in helping students acquire and develop their leadership skills.

How does one become the kind of person who makes a difference? How do you teach people to become the best leaders possible? In our own studies, as well as others by the Center for Creative Leadership and corporations like Honeywell, three major opportunities for learning to lead emerge: (a) trial and error, (b) observation of others, and (c) formal education and training. You will see these three elements prominently incorporated in the course designs that follow. Some instructors have built their course specifically upon The Leadership Challenge, and others have simply included it as one of many other resources in their course design.

Are there important skills for developing leadership not included in The Leadership Challenge? There is plenty of room for you to add other ideas and concepts to those we’ve provided, and we welcome your feedback and sug­gestions. Information on how to contact us is included at the end of this Guide.

It is our intention, both in studying and writing about leadership, to work with others who share a belief that there is a leader within each per-son—yearning to make a difference. Our responsibility as teachers is to fos­ter that belief, promote the self-confidence necessary to step forward, and build the skills required to become a positive force in the world.

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