What is Leadership? Our students speak…

In October, we ran an end-of-year survey with 2013 participants of the Leadership Program, seeking feedback on the Program, what students had learnt and how we could improve it for 2014. One of the things we asked students to do was to complete the sentence: “To me, Leadership is…”
Let’s have a look at some of the responses (some are edited for length, clarity + repetition):

“…the ability to get the job done”

“…taking your eyes off yourself, serving”

“…ninety per cent participation”

“…setting a positive example and taking that first step to affect change”

“…assisting the development, growth and success of a team”

“…helping others & managing people with different ideas to achieve common goal”

“…first being a leader of yourself”

“…being confident to lead others in a positive direction”

“…speaking up when others won’t, being supportive, and being motivational”

I think it’s telling that all the responses involve action in some way, but few really mention a specific activity or role. Donald H Gannon agreed that “Leadership is action, not position”, and I’d concur that defining leadership roles to define leadership is as useful as explaining the combustion engine by naming Holden Models – people need examples, but it doesn’t help them understand what’s really “under the bonnet”.

I like that none of these ideas requires any particular knowledge or skills, just a proactive mindset and a desire to make a change – literally anybody can be a leader. We’ve seen countless examples of students on the program who have surprised themselves and delighted us by the personal journey they have made simply by being willing to have a go at leading. They may have felt that their background, workload or personal life was a barrier to taking on a leadership role, but it really is “90% participation” – anyone can be a leader if they care enough about the cause.

“Being a Leader of yourself” is an interesting one – my first reaction was that yes, you have to know and be able to motivate yourself in order to do the same for others. Upon further reflection, I would argue that most people, especially at the age of many of our students, do not yet have complete self-knowledge (if they ever will) does this prevent them from being an effective leader? I suppose it’s more a case of knowing what motivates you at that moment and making the choice to “take your eyes off yourself, serve” – your motivations and character may change over time, but hopefully your desire to have a positive impact on others will not.

The last response on the list is for me the most contentious as it also the most prescriptive. I can’t argue with “being supportive”, but as a pretty extreme introvert, I am not always comfortable “speaking up” (although I sometimes force myself to do so) – does this necessarily make me a less effective leader?
I would also question whether “being motivational” is a pre-requisite for leadership. I suppose you can’t lead if others aren’t motivated to follow, but the phrase just conjures up an image of a motivational speaker on stage getting the audience to chant along with their messages of self-actualisation and pursuit of success, an image that is anathema to my personality and values.

Perhaps I have too narrow a reading of the concept, or maybe I’ve misunderstood what they meant, but much of the thinking on Leadership also seems to define it through the language of extroversion. I think this brings us back to the problem of defining leadership through its roles – Think of a leader and we think of Prime Ministers and Presidents, who only get  elected through a gruelling campaign of speeches, interviews and gladhanding or Sports captains who are generally vocal, outwardly passionate and get all the TV time.

Do we think enough about those who work behind the scenes? Those who shun the limelight and who gain their energy from internal motivations rather than external recognition? In a future post I will be delving deeper into the idea of different Leadership styles – if you would like to contribute to the discussion, please don’t hesitate to comment below, or contact me via Twitter (@FedUniLeaders) or Facebook (Fed Uni Student Leadership).

– Luke