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.
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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