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Looking at Leadership as an Inkblot

August 31, 2015

leadership inkblot

Is there, as a question of fact, any such thing as a leader?  Is there really any clear way to differentiate a leader from a boss, a manager, a supervisor, or anyone else?

Psychologists sometimes ask their clients to focus on a printed card that has a large black randomly shaped splotch on it.  They ask, “What do you see?”  Friends may do much the same looking at cloud formations in the sky.  Remarkably, familiar shapes and subjects are discerned from amorphous shapes despite the inherent ambiguity of the form itself.  One person sees a dragon, another, a horse, still another, an old man.  The human imagination creates recognizable things where there is only randomness.

Remarkably, much the same thing happens when communities of leadership buffs put their heads together to define leadership.  Indeed, differentiation of manager or boss from a leader is one of the most popular threads to be found among LinkedIn discussion groups.  Two of the most popular, HBR and Leadership Think-Tank, offer an intriguing insight into leadership.  Within these sites, new threads are spawned weekly that ask discussants to weigh in describing their sense of the difference.  Literally thousands of comments have addressed the issue of leadership and offered hundreds of terms as definitions.  In crude tabular form the following are among the most frequently suggested qualities of a leader.

bassett inkblot list

Any of these terms might easily be applied to a manager, supervisor or boss, so what is it about them that makes leadership distinguishable?  A good answer might be that they are all worthy qualities in anyone, but particularly so in one who exercises dominance and control over others.  To be accepted as a leader, those who would shape the actions, and thus the fate of others, must act humanly and in everyone’s best interest.  The issue at core is the manner in which domination and control are exercised.  Despite their inherent discomfort, domination and control can, at times, transmute into leadership when that discomfort can be muted.
This presents us with the question of whether it is possible to definitively know just what a leader or leadership is.  Perhaps there is only the potential for a shift in the quality of a follower’s experience when working within a power context.  Leadership is the experience of dominance or control where the follower’s needs and concerns are fully accommodated.  Thus, enigmatically, leadership may just be authority without the appearance of authority.

This makes linguistic sense as well.  The concept of leadership is what psychologists label an essence.  Essences are ideas abstracted from experience that have no clearly tangible reference in fact.  The essence of leadership is found in the experience of being dominated, of experiencing how control is exercised over one’s actions and maybe even one’s beliefs.  A leader is perceived to act for the benefit of all.  A manager or boss is one in authority who is seen to act on behalf of self-interest or in response to some higher level of domination without concern for the effect on followers.  That impact can be moderated by enacting those leadership qualities that soften the bluntness of authority.

If this is how leadership works, every follower will experience leadership through a very personal lens.  The individual’s tolerance for domination and control may raise or lower the threshold of the leadership experience.  Full personal commitment of an institutional nature may allow acceptance of bare domination and control as leadership.   At the other end of the tolerance scale, overcoming long-standing skepticism or cynicism of followers may demand extraordinary sensitivity.   For a leader to be a leader, his or her actions must be adapted and suited to the temper and experience of followers.  It is only they who establish who is or is not a leader by discerning its appearance in the behavior of the boss.

Leadership is an inkblot.

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About The Author

Glenn Bassett holds a baccalaureate degree from the University of California, Berkeley and a doctorate in Management from Yale University. His most recent book is The Manager’s Craft, distributed by New Shelves Distribution Service. For over a quarter century he was a member of the University of Bridgeport Business School faculty and for eight of those years he was Dean of the School. In an earlier career as a Personnel manager he developed personnel policy and carried out major labor relations research projects as a member of the General Electric corporate staff. Earlier yet he served as human resource manager and management development consultant for GE’s Apollo Systems Support Operation in Daytona Beach, Florida. He is author of twelve published books, three invited chapters in edited books, and numerous professional journal articles. He and his wife, Lolly, make their home on Rogers Lake in Lyme, CT.

One Comment »

  1. avatar

    Dad,

    This is such and insightful and thought provoking article. Both of us have had military experience where authority over the individual is full and complete and disobeying an order can rarely but certainly be lethal. One of the sagest sayings about leaders from the military is “You really don’t know the measure of the man until he has bars on his shoulders.” For those that haven’t experienced military humor, the idea is simply that you learn a lot about a person when you give them power over others. You learn a lot and generally very quickly.

    In the instances where I have been (in my own mind) a credible leader, I had a vision of what could be, I’ve shared that vision with logic and enthusiasm, I’ve tried to highlight the benefits of chasing this vision to the team and tried to highlight the individual and group benefit to each. I’ve tried to help out those that needed help quietly, and I’ve helped “out” those that needed to to be out. Believe me its most humane to act quickly in that latter event. Where the vision was good, people came along and we made great things happen. Where it wasn’t Ive been lucky to have my team tell me just how bad it was, and generally very quickly. Thank goodness for that since we can all fall in love with our own vision…

    I love the inkblot analogy. Maybe that is what we are doing as leaders all the time… showing a slightly more organized inkblot (powerpoint these days), creating an environment that is safe for our teammates to reach their own authentic positive feelings about our inkblot, and then mildly shaping perception all the time to a point where the inkblot becomes a shared goal and one behind which we all drive to succeed. If the inkblot sucks, the endeavor fails – the team doesn’t come together. If the inkblot succeeds, life is good. Once we all are driving to succeed behind a shared vision, good results generally come. And with success, well, then you get to do it again.

    Just one man’s opinion (or perception)…

    Looking forward to seeing more posts like this!

    Glenn Jr.

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