Transition Management Consulting, Inc.

350 Definitions for Leadership – Really?

by Jackie Eder-Van Hook
I LOVE testing my own assumptions and entertaining and discussing provocative questions. Recently, I was working on a project focused on leadership and decided to really delve into what it means to be a leader, what do we know about leadership, who is a leader, and who says so. 

From the beginning of recorded history, humankind has been led by Chiefs as the heads of tribes, Popes as the heads of the church, and Kings as the heads of state. Our modern-day equivalent are executives – those individuals who serve as “corporate tribal leaders” seemingly in search of fame, fortune, or glory for their organizations and themselves in the most egotistic and narcissistic cases, and for the betterment of individuals and society in the more benevolent. The truth, undoubtedly, lies somewhere in between.

Like a moth to a flame, we seemingly are mesmerized with the concept of leadership, so we keep inventing ways to describe or categorize as we try to make meaning of it all. It’s no wonder it is perplexing. Since 1985 there were have been no less than 350 definitions for leadership, and since 1991, 65 different classification systems. 

So many different systems made me curious. What do I know or think I know about leadership and where did these ideas come from? What are my assumptions and biases? Good questions. Like any good critical thinker, I decided a small research project was in order. 

From my personal library, I selected 13 books published since 1985 by authors of varied backgrounds to use as an overview. I read them over a 7-day period. (Yes, I read fast, and there’re techniques to do this.) 

Using evocative naming strategies from scenario planning, I sorted the overarching concepts into four categories: Pot of Gold, My Way, Emperor has No Clothes, and Somewhere Over the Rainbow. In the Pot of Gold stories, the authors presented a transactional approach in which if you do “X” then you receive “Y.” The My Way stories were comprised of corporate CEOs writing about their experiences in an autobiographical, narrative style. In the Emperor has No Clothes stories, the authors, all journalists, wrote a critique of leadership and management scholarship. In the Somewhere Over the Rainbow stories, we are called to our higher self.  

If this is what I know about leadership, then it has been framed almost entirely by older white men, which is neither good or bad per se, it did lead me to wonder where are the “other” voices? Why haven’t I sought out perspectives well beyond, Collins, Bennis, Drucker, or Peters. I ask myself, “Have I been sufficiently critical in my reading choices?” The answer is no. What about you? Go to your own library right now and see what books you have on your shelf. Do they cover a range of thinking or one small slice? Let me know. I remain curious.  
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