Leadership – Define it … or can we?

Numerous definitions have flirted with the topic of leadership. The search engine Google demonstrates this whereby a search for the “definition of Leadership” lists over 50 million results, epitomising the sheer magnitude of research in this area alone, possibly revealing the extent of our ignorance in the process. While most leadership publications frequently start with a list of definitions and a summary involving: traits, behaviours and motivation, the fact is leadership is an ever evolving art-form hence why “there are almost as many definitions of Leadership as there are persons who have attempted to define the concept” (Stogdill, 1974).

David Foster Wallace, an American writer proposed this definition on leadership:

“The weird thing is that the word “leader” itself is cliche; and boring, but when you come across somebody who actually is a real leader, that person isn’t cliche or boring at all; in fact he’s sort of the opposite of cliche and boring.

Obviously, a real leader isn’t just somebody who has ideas you agree with, nor is it just somebody you happen to believe is a good guy. Think about it. A real leader is somebody who, because of his own particular power and charisma and example, is able to inspire people, with “inspire” being used here in a serious and non-cliche way. A real leader can somehow get us to do certain things that deep down we think are good and want to be able to do but usually can’t get ourselves to do on our own. It’s a mysterious quality, hard to define, but we always know it when we see it, even as kids” (Foster Wallace, 2007)

Wallace’s definition however is somewhat flawed because his message assumes that people are born to be leaders. “The most dangerous leadership myth is that leaders are born – that there is a genetic factor to leadership. This myth asserts that people simply either have certain charismatic qualities or not. That’s nonsense; in fact, the opposite is true. Leaders are made rather than born” (Warren Bennis). With this in mind Leadership is arguably so elusive that one quote alone cannot convey its true value. That said, US General Douglas MacArthur did capture it quite well when he stated that:

“A true leader has the confidence to stand alone, the courage to take tough decisions, and the compassion to listen to the needs of others. He does not set out to be a leader, but becomes one by the equality of his actions and the integrity of his intent”

General Douglas MacArthur arguably defined modern leadership long before it even existed. His choice of words: “equality of his actions and the integrity of his intent” resonates with Stogdill’s’ proposal that leadership is “the ability to bring about positive change” (Stoghill, 1974). By “intent” contemporary leaders have delivered “positive change” for modern society. Notably many ecommerce leaders today did “not set out to be a leader”. For example, Sophie Amaruso (founder of nastygal.com) said recently “I never wanted to be a CEO” (Daily Mail, 2014), echoing the sentiment of online business owners in Ireland. Yet today Nastygal.com employs over 300 people while boasting a turnover in excess of $130 million, within six years of trading, with Amaruso leading the way. Paul Mooney wrote about his personal experience in Accidental Leadership in which he commented during his opening chapter:

“In my experience very few kids or young adults decide (Consciously) that they want to become leaders. Most people end up in Leadership roles – Accidental leaders as it were” (Paul Mooney, 2009)

Akin to accidental leadership, visionary ecommerce founders by their nature incubate a transformational domain; after all the concept of online retailing was born from the non-conformist mind-set and therefore resides in a state of constant transformation. Their intuitive drive never seems to rest, an almost subconscious acknowledgment that complacency precedes extinction.

With this in mind, can leadership ever be defined? Can a ‘Definition’ capture what has yet to unfold? If so, is leadership beyond ‘Definition’? The dynamic element that embodies leadership maybe so elusive that definitions are merely misplaced human desires to control an uncontrollable force.


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