What is Leadership?
We are all leaders of something – whether it be our own lives, families, and relationships – or a project, team, business unit, organization or nation. Leadership is not the sole domain of the highest authority in a hierarchy or even of a single individual, but can include individuals and collectives, at all levels, in a variety of systems and structures.1
At its most basic, there are three legs to the stool of leadership: ideas, action, and relationships. See how these are depicted in the Venn diagram below, with ideas, relationships, action, and one’s inner essential core converging to achieve key outcomes.
The three essential components of leadership reflect the legs of the stool: effective leadership envisions (holds a vision, strategy, idea), enrolls (engages others to participate), and enacts (catalyzes or generates action) to achieve desired outcomes. 2 The Performance Prism depicts how these three components overlap and intersect in the middle (with leadership’s essential core acting as the grounding source for the other three) to achieve critical outcomes.3
There are numerous “theaters” in which leadership operates. Leadership can be demonstrated at the individual level (e.g., leadership of one’s own personal or professional responsibilities), at the group level (e.g., within or across teams, business units or families), at the enterprise level (e.g., within or across nonprofit, for-profit or governmental organizations) or at the supra-enterprise levels (e.g., within or across industries, sectors and nations).
Often leadership is most needed and most challenging in the “between spaces” – between people (relationships), between silos (interfaces), between entities (partnerships, consortiums, etc.), between sectors (cross-sector, cross-industry, etc.), and between disciplines (cross-discipline).
Leadership is both individual and collective. Individuals bring their own unique model, capabilities and behavioral footprint to every situation. When two or more work together, a third “entity” is created (e.g., a relationship, team, organization, community, etc.) that is distinct from but collectively created by individuals.4 This entity can have its own patterns of behavior that are distinct from those of individuals in the collective. Organizational cultures are a good example of such a pattern; while organizational cultures are reflective of individual behaviors, they also emerge as distinct from the behavior of any one person.5
What Does "Good" Look Like?
Results matter; effectiveness of leadership is measured by the degree to which critical outcomes are achieved. When measured over time in complex, dynamic systems, the full range of short and long-term outcomes should be considered, including task, relationship and learning results. 6
Leadership is contextual; effective leadership achieves these outcomes, in the face of specific, real barriers and opportunities. Because every situation and context are different, effective leadership is able to read the context to understand what is needed and versatile enough to access what is required.
Leadership development is needed when leadership’s current capability to envision, enroll and enact, is not sufficient to generate the required results in the current context. Development is not always linear, starting from the smaller “theaters” and gradually building to the larger ones. Experience of leading in larger contexts can catalyze profound growth in the context of interpersonal relationships and in the evolution of self, and vice versa.
The most powerful leadership is possible when the mission, values and capabilities of the leader are well aligned with the demands of the context. This superior leadership is often experienced as coherent, cohesive and integrated, reflecting a balanced alignment between leadership’s internal physical, intellectual and emotional systems and its “core” (i.e., their values, intuitive wisdom, creative potential). When this happens, leadership is able to access a greater field of information and operate at the emergent edge of creativity, responding to challenges and opportunities with greater intelligence, adaptability, and agility.
Does this leadership model distinguish between moral and immoral leadership? Effective leadership can be wrought for good or evil. Moral leadership depends on alignment of “right” vision, will, use of power, responsibility, and competition. 7 8
© 2021 Carolyn Volpe Cunningham