One constant in my experience of running leadership development programs over the past two decades is the wide variation among participants about the definition of “leadership”. A room filled with ambitious people, all of whom consider themselves to be “leaders”, results in different leadership definitions from each and every person. It was only after reading Ron Heifetz’s book, Leadership Without Easy Answers, that I gained some much needed insight.
Heifetz separates the term “leadership” from the term “authority”. He refers to authority as providing protection, direction, and order. Authority often comes from the position or role that you have – formal authority (such as the President, a mother, a police officer), but it can also be informal (think of the person in your office who everyone seeks out for the latest information – he or she may not have a high ranking title, but does have informal authority as a source of information). Leadership is about managing change and mobilizing people to tackle tough problems. By defining leadership as an activity, Heifetz allows leadership to originate from multiple positions in an organization or society.
Separating these two concepts of leadership and authority is a start to changing how we think about leadership in our era. Gone are the days when we look to the “leader” at the top of the organization or society to provide the solutions to all of our problems. One only needs to look to the world of politics to see how people are still struggling to adjust their definition of leadership. How many times have you heard people say, if only we were able to get our candidate elected, things would be better. To my own regret, such sentiment amounts to no more than wishful thinking and only leads to disappointment – not to mention it absolves everyone from owning a piece of the problem. By contrast, the definition of leadership as an activity permits people at all levels to bring about change in a fast-paced world – not, as in this case, just the candidate running for office.
How is redefining leadership relevant in your day-to-day? If you are trying to solve all of the problems yourself and expecting people to follow you – in other words, being the industrial age leader – you are bound to fail. In the information era, you need to think about the resources around you – and how they can be used to address the challenges that you face. Being strategic and innovative in your approach to problems will allow you to make progress on what you are trying to achieve. Because most challenges we encounter now do not have a singular solution, you need to be open to many different possible answers. Realizing that you don’t need to have the answers is a big relief – but it doesn’t make leadership any easier, it just changes your approach.