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Posts Tagged ‘Context’

…does not exist.

There is not one agreed upon definition in the world despite how much leadership has been studied and written about. As of today 316,641 results returned when searching Amazon for books on leadership. According to Warren Bennis in Leaders (1997) “academic analysis has given us more than 850 definitions of leadership”. I think it is fair to say that defining leadership will be studied and debated for a long time to come and it is likely we will never all agree on THE BEST definition.

Although that is the question I have been asked and challenged about the most.

A very good friend even wrote to me having spent a good deal of time reading what I wrote, thinking and searching the internet trying to help me do a better job of defining leadership. The definition I offered in one of my posts was “Translating vision into reality” by Warren Bennis. Yet she strongly believes that “Vision is not a catalyst for leadership.” Essentially the definition I had offered in her worldview was just wrong. Yet the most interesting thing of all was that everything she said to make her point completely validated what I was trying to say to begin with about leadership and leading.

Could a definition actually be getting in the way?

Perhaps offering a definition of leadership was a mistake. Not because I offered a “wrong” definition. Warren Bennis is well known as an expert in this field so it certainly wasn’t wrong. But because I tried to define something that perhaps cannot be adequately expressed with the simplicity and accuracy expected from the definition of anything.

So why do we keep trying to define it?

People expect you to be able to define the thing you are writing about or teaching. It is a valid expectation so naturally I have offered one. But definitions rarely help you understand and/or do the very thing you are trying to define. For example, I can define balance, but does that help me to achieve the balance necessary to ride a bicycle? In the case of leadership I have never seen a definition that has helped anyone instantly know how to lead.

What do we seek when we ask for a definition? I think we are seeking “the truth” about it. Yet trying to define leadership is a bit like trying to define beauty: it has many interpretations, although we know it when we see it. It is also said that beauty is in the eyes of the beholder. In fact, beauty does not look the same in all cultures. And perhaps neither does leadership. This points to the power of context in shaping our interpretations of “truth” about anything, including leadership.

What could be more useful than a definition?

The notion of a “random act of leadership” is my attempt to take leadership out of the realm of theory and develop a rich context for leading that can give EVERYONE access to leading in their day to day work and lives. My purpose is not to define leadership. It is to empower more people to see and seize opportunities to lead more readily and more often in everyday work and life. My focus is on identifying the actions of leading so we can do it more and make a bigger difference ourselves rather than waiting for “the” leaders to make things happen.

So now what?

I say we create a context for leadership that helps us see opportunities to lead – to take actions that will make a difference in the things that matter to us. So I invite you to start thinking about and sharing your context for leadership. The question I’ll use to start the inquiry is this:

What does leadership look like? I look forward to learning from your responses!

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No I am not talking about the theory that red cars get more tickets or have more accidents. Although that is a theory, there actually seems to be little evidence to support it. Besides, the question of whether they do or not is not as interesting to me as why they might. Perhaps it is because of their color alone. Then again, maybe the hype about red cars made them more noticeable. Why do we notice one thing and miss something else entirely? That is what I am talking about.

Pontiac Grand Am (no it's not a 1985 model)

Pontiac Grand Am (no it's not a 1985 model)

When I graduated from college I bought a red Pontiac Grand Am. And from then on I noticed two things while driving around: (1) how many red cars were on the road, and (2) how many Grand Am’s there were of all colors. We notice things that we have some personal connection to, whether that connection is based on our experience, our desires, our knowledge, or something else. Here’s why: because everything we have learned and experienced creates the context or lens through which we relate to the world. It shapes what we pay attention to amidst the daily onslaught of signals and information. It even shapes what we are capable of seeing or observing.

Creating a Simple Context for Observing Leadership in Action

That is why I believe it is so important to create a context for leadership that enables you to see it in action. If our context for leading is limited to grand gestures like Martin Luther King’s “I have a dream” speech we will miss leadership in its simplest, most elemental form. If we want to be able to seize an opportunity to act as a leader in any given moment we must be able to perceive the moments of opportunities or they will pass by unnoticed like all the cars you drive by every day, but don’t really see. And if we cannot see leadership in the actions of others how will we be able to recognize it in ourselves?

The challenge here is to define leadership in action and in a way that it can be recognized by anyone. Because if you can recognize it you have access to doing it and to teaching others to lead as well. My equivalent of a “Red Car” for leadership is this: speaking up, stepping up and/or standing up for something you are committed to.

A Recent Example…

Danny Brown
posted an entry on Twitter on January 31st offering a free press release to the first 50 people donating $20 for his 12 for 12k fundraising challenge.

True, he happens to be the leader of this initiative. But the point is anyone could have done something similar – it was as simple as posting a 140 character “tweet”.

Your turn…

What acts of leadership have you observed? If none come to mind start looking for the “Red Car” and come back to tell us about what you observed. And please don’t worry about getting it right. We will all learn from looking at acts of leadership through your eyes.

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