Is Leadership even a thing?


There are lots of compasses with the word "Leadership"​ on them on the internet. Here is #13250832.

Every so often, people ask me if I deliver Leadership Trainings. It happened again recently, and (as usual) my response did not land the gig: “As soon as someone can define what Leadership means within your organization and how you measure it, sure!

Strangely, no one ever wants to talk about that.

I don’t really know why anyone would avoid a definition of Leadership. I mean, if you’re going to invest in something, don’t you want to know what it is first? Don’t you want to be able to say if it worked or not? While it might be slightly uncomfortable to lean in to the question of what Leadership actually is, the payoff should more than justify the temporary awkwardness of having to ask a few clarifying questions.

If I’ve got it all wrong, scroll down to the comments and rant away. And if you’ve been wondering about this too, please reach out and say so below.

When people ask me if I develop certification programs, I say “Yes, and YouTube was quite happy with my work.” Software trainings? “I’m like a machine.” Compliance courseware? “In my sleep, and while keeping the Learners awake too!

Be it the acquisition of knowledge, the changing of behaviors, or just defending the organization against its own people, it’s not all that hard.

Each of those things are still serious work, don’t get me wrong. I don’t mean to downplay the fact that plenty of effort may be required. But because there is something that is already being measured somewhere in the organization, it’s not all that confusing or difficult really.

Within a few questions of the right people, any of us could drill down to the thing that ultimately matters to the business…except in the case of Leadership.

After having some fantastic and challenging discussions with folks like Matthew Richter, Julian Stodd, and other peers at conferences and on the daily TLDChat livestream, I’m coming to the conclusion that it’s because Leadership doesn’t actually exist — at least not in the conventional sense. We don’t mean one thing when we use that word, it’s an imprecise term.

What if the word “Leadership” has as many meanings as words like “Rich” or “Secure” or even “Love”?

We use these kinds of words all the time as a kind of cultural shorthand, and while they work well enough for everyday conversation, they’re a bit out of place in a legitimate business discussion. These are concepts that have more to do with how we personally assign a relative value than anything we could agree on at a collective or organizational level.

I now believe that Leadership is something we very sloppily and mostly incorrectly attribute to people.

Again, this isn’t a problem, by itself. Culturally, we’re sloppy about all sorts of words, and just plain wrong about how we use a lot of them too. Culture is like that, it’s messy and we prefer to keep it that way.

The problem comes when we try and do something silly like make more of this amorphously cultural thing in the quantifiably business-driven world. In business, any implementation project requires definitions, scope, logic, metrics, etc. to justify itself over other projects that also take time and money.

In business, we need more than a Leader, we need information. We need a target and a way of knowing when we’ve hit it. Otherwise how would we know when to stop? Or start? Or if we’re heading in the wrong direction or the right one?

If I copied all the behaviors of the favored Leader in your organization and pasted them onto someone else who is not a Leader, would they suddenly be one?

If replaced someone near the top of your org chart with someone from the bottom and gave them all the rights, privileges, and decision-making powers of the new position, would you follow them?

Would anyone follow them?

…I’ll resist the urge to make any direct political references here, but I’m confident that someone specific springs to mind as I say this.

Such people might be called Leaders whether anyone actually follows them or not, and whether they act like Leaders or not. But even if so, I bet you don’t have a uniform measure that is used throughout your organization. (And if you do I’d love to hear about it in the comments!)

So how can you tell if someone is a Leader? I don’t know. And I don’t think your organization knows either.

Until you figure this out, I humbly suggest you allocate your resources to other more solvable problems. As I’m sure you know, there are plenty of those to be found. Find and solve enough of them, and people might even start calling you a Leader.

Whatever that means.