The approach to leadership

Our journey to leadership requires a preliminary under-standing of the words and the approaches regarding leadership that have been used throughout time. 

     Leadership is a concept that attracts people since a very long time, it saw a growing interest in the last one hundred and fifty years, with an impressive progression with the development of the Western world after World War II. In the last decades a monumental number of words have been spent regarding leadership in academic studies, articles, blogs, websites and so forth. 

     The interest surrounding leadership is understandable, after all the actions and choices of a leader determine the level of efficiency, if not the success or failure, of productive processes and industrial projects across the globe. 

     Less understandable is the approach that literature, at all levels, has to leadership. There seems to be a dyscrasia, a sort of imbalance, between the truth of leadership as leaders know it and what readers and academics are willing to accept and write. The prevailing approach when tackling leadership is that of social sciences. Proceeding rationally, academics and authors of various standings and knowledge brake down the concept of leadership into innumerable categories that represent leadership styles, leadership skills, leadership traits. The approach produces new categories each year, more and more detailed. The result is an abundance of categories, styles, skills, traits and new theories on leadership which, imaginatively combined together, end up in disarrayed conclusions or at least have a very distant relation with living leaders actively operating in the real world.

     While leadership is a status, a way of being, very dear to Western culture, while leadership has been one of the most prominent aspects in human relationships throughout history and in prehistoric times as well, it is unusually surprising that leadership has never really been treated as a subject in its own right. The attempt of understanding leadership is rather recent. In the past we maneuvered around the idea of leadership mainly associating it with war and politics, but never really elaborating it directly. Only in recent times social sciences tried a direct approach to leadership. 

     A stream of scholarship dedicated to the understanding of leadership has clearly emerged in contemporary society. If the second part of part of the twentieth century was concentrated on hordes of contingency and behavioral theories, scholars now seek new approaches to the topic of leadership, which however remains most elusive. The exploration of leadership, which relied heavily on the methodologies of social sciences, is now looking towards a wider horizon, turning for example to philosophy to enhance its understanding of leadership.

     However, again surprisingly, it seems that scholars and authors went from one extreme to another: if in the past leadership was the consequence of some kind of classic or romantic wholeness, today it is addressed as if it was a new and unknown Martian rock discovery, that needs to be studied and broken down in its minutest geological elements and interactions, rigorously, strictly applying the scientific method and its derivatives. Considering the human, emotional side of leadership, seems offensive. Useless to write that this excess of analysis of leadership produces redundant concepts, saturates discussions, concludes nothing: most papers, literally hundreds of pages, remain suspended in the thin air, pushed away by the sighs of their readers. Additionally, the way you approach leadership also determines the very same understanding of leadership, if you pretend to approach leadership strictly with a scientific method, you will have in return hundreds of ordered concepts which will only scratch the surface, just like if you tried to grab the essence of, let’s say, beauty or love, with the same method. The problem is not with leadership, the problem is with the approach to leadership, which is wrong. There is much more to leadership than the scientific method.

     There are as many definitions of leadership as there are leaders, because when we try to catch the meaning of leadership we are, in fact, trying to catch the meaning of the life of a man or a woman, which is one of the most difficult things ever.

     Leadership belongs to the realm of essential human activities and emotions. Leadership shares with love a plain difficulty to be defined by human beings. The attempts to reach a definition rather than defining are interesting for highlighting the tendencies and the approach of the era in which these attempts were made. A classical definition of love as opposed to a romantic definition of love as opposed to a scientific definition of love, just to make three examples of three different eras, go along with similar approaches to leadership. This is important to understand because it gives you the limits of what you will find in much of the literature dedicated to leadership.

     Leadership is the Totem of Western culture. A totem is usually an animal or other natural figure that spiritually represents a group of related people such as a clan. It is a spirit, a sacred object, a symbol that represents a group of people. Leadership and the concept of success or, better defined, the idea of endeavor independently from success, are a core value of our society. So, there has always been a sort of extreme respect when facing the concept of leadership. And it is surprising all the more so to consider modern difficulties in fully interpreting leadership if you reflect that our entire civilization evolved and moved forward steered by recognized leaders. 

     For a very long time we associated leadership to a sort of divine attribute; we then began to study man and his behaviors (unfortunately not woman because a woman leader, with very few exceptions, was almost an heresy in the past); we finally began to directly address the concept of leadership rather than the deity or the man.

     What are the traits of these leaders? What do they have in common? What is the pattern of their behavior? What were their aims and scopes? The answer is we don’t know. We never tried or I’d better say we have never succeeded in a comprehensive study surrounding modern and ancient leaders’ behaviors that goes to the core. Nonetheless literature dedicated to leadership flourishes especially in the last decades and, despite it essentially misses to capture and understand leadership, it keeps on thriving. Some may ask why this is happening? Values is the answer. In times when our values falter and are strained to a greater extent, we end up seeking for an answer from the core values of our society and so, never it has been more important than in any other time in history to understand our positive totem, our encouraging myth of Leadership. There is nothing wrong in doing this, actually it is the right thing to do. But the problem is that our way of investigating has limits. Our obsession with categories prevents us from understanding leadership in its entirety. We have to remove these lenses to begin to find wisdom.

     Leadership is a complex phenomenon and of course we will go through each and every ‘mechanical’ part of leadership: it is my declared aim precisely to unveil to my readers the single parts of leadership in this book but let me also assure you that you will never understand one single thing if you don’t accept that the mechanism is human, so much human that it needs to be addressed as a whole. 

     In the film ‘Dead Poets Society’ students are encouraged by a farsighted young teacher to rip out the introduction of their poetry books which explains through a mathematical formula how to rate poetry. The more you try to explain poetry, the less you will understand of poetry. Leadership, like love, poetry and the most essential aspects of our life cannot be defined, captured by a formula or a definition. The more you are trying to define it, the more you feel you are losing something. I understand this takes you out of your comfort zone. It would be great if we could break down a leader into lists of traits, styles, definitions, even rules. Unfortunately, it’s not like this, you’ll have to learn to give up many habits and rules, to head towards the territories of leadership. This is another game we’re playing. But don’t worry, I’m here to help.