What Is Leadership?

Leadership is one of those ideas that we often take for granted

Leadership is one of those ideas that we often take for granted. It is a concept that seems fixed in our imagination and one that we rarely stop to consider. In this article, let us pause to consider what “leadership” is and how understanding the idea more clearly may aid in our organizational lives.

Leadership is a combination of three things:
1) a leader (or group of leaders), 2) a set of followers, and 3) contexts.

The leader is an obvious point in the category so much so that people often interchange “leader” with “leadership.” However, without followers, there is no “leader." The category of “leader" implies “followers." Therefore the idea of a leader is fused with the idea of followers; without one you do not have the other. Consider how ridiculous is it when someone declares themselves a “leader” but doesn’t have anyone following them. If no one is following, you are not leading. This is not an abstract philosophical statement. It is an observation of reality.

In most discussions about leadership, followers are often ignored or are invisible. Our society tends to value the leader and devalue the follower. The reasons for this are complicated and interwoven into the fabric of society itself, but you may be heartened to know that the idea of “followership” has begun to be more seriously studied by researchers in the fields of leadership, management, and organizational studies.

Every leader and set of followers are engaged in at least one, and possibly many, contexts. The context is the situation in which leadership occurs. In formal leadership scenarios, the leader-follower grouping is often apparent. An example of this is the organizational structure of your workplace. You have a boss, your boss has a boss, and the organization exists for a set of explicit reasons. This typical scenario forms the core of most leadership situations which remain relatively static from day-to-day.

Yet leadership emerges in unique ways even in these formal organizations. For instance, imagine you are a middle manager but are assigned a new project that will draw on people from other departments within the organization. You become the “leader” of this project, and it forms a unique “leadership” endeavor. The project creates a new context for leadership, and with it, a new leader-follower-context set occurs. This is a new leadership configuration that may only exist for a limited time within a larger and more formal organization.

To take new leadership even further, now imagine that this same group develops a pattern of going out for dinner regularly and this is driven by a particularly social member of the project team. “Leadership” has just occurred again. This time entirely informally, with a new leader, largely the same followers, and a new context (dinner).

We see now that leadership context does not only pertain to the org chart and position descriptions found in most organizations. There are also semi-formal leadership configurations that arise in organizations (in the example the project) and informal leadership configurations (the dinner). This also helps to clarify an essential application of this idea. Who is a leader, who is a follower, and the particular context of leadership may be changing in any given set of situations. Rarely is one person always in charge of everything, in fact, if they are that should serve as a “red flag” signaling dysfunction.

Summary: leadership is made up of three components (1) a leader or team of leaders, (2) a group of followers, and (3) a particular context. Without all three there is no “leadership.” These three elements of leadership are often in flux in any organization.

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