Leadership as a Practice

Leadership is an interesting and wide-ranging subject. A Google search on leadership yields more than 3.7 billion results, including everything from the definition of the word and the latest business articles on the topic, to academic research, leadership-focused professional associations, and hundreds of training “solutions.”

Leadership is discussed from many perspectives. When leadership is considered as a personal quality for example, it is defined as something a person does or does not have. When leadership is explained as a position, it is something that is contingent on a hierarchy. Both of these views limit how individuals in any position might explore, adopt, and continually develop leadership-focused practices.

Leadership may be discussed terms of events. By looking at history or past decisions, we find cases and scenarios that give us a platform to analyze cause-and-effect. We can draw important lessons from the historical view, though the perspective is limited as well. In practice, leaders have to look forward, not backward. They have to make decisions without the ability to see influences beyond the horizon. Context, risk, and ripple effects are important factors modern leaders cannot ignore; historical examples give us insights and evidence, not sure-fire methods and decisions.

Where leadership is explored using terms such as charisma and inspiration, we find stories of leadership heroes. The appreciative biographies of monarchs and political leaders, Fortune 500 executives, philanthropists, and modern-day thought leaders give us shining examples we often feel we should aspire to as leaders ourselves. The problem here is survivor bias and idealistic suggestions that effective leadership is really just about adopting the right persona. We rarely hear stories where charismatic leaders have failed, and even less frequently have the opportunity to look at the circumstances that allowed these leaders to be successful.

Most of us cannot afford to buy into the myth that if we could just find the magic formula to inspire and empower our people, they’ll just know what to do, how to get it done, and how to coordinate with everybody else.

Strong leadership is work, pure and simple. It usually involves consistent management, positive communication practices, accountability, organization, evaluation, and critical reflection. The work of an effective leader is to consistently connect ideas to action, getting things done through people.

It’s easy to find lots of information and varying perspectives on leadership; many summed up online into articles listing the 20 habits, 12 practices, or 5 essential skills of great leaders.

Effective leadership really comes down to how you work and critical reflection on what works for you.

The ideas here are for insight.

In his 1983 book, The Reflective Practitioner: How Professionals Think In Action, Donald Schön explained that for most professionals, technical knowledge only carries us so far. To navigate the kinds of situations we face daily ⁠— unique, complex, unstable, ambiguous, and tricky ⁠— we need to consistently ask ourselves critical questions. What do I know? How does it apply here? Where should I adapt?

Though the focus of many of my articles is on the habits and routines of effective leaders, it is also important to remember that most practices should be adopted with an attitude of evaluation and adaptability. Rigid practices without reflection results in professional blind spots and a lack of situational awareness.

The most effective leaders are also managers, organizers, planners, auditors, coaches, and teachers. They work to identify and address their blind spots rather than trying to compensate for them with motivation or meaingless “Go Team” nonsense. They work with and through people to move the workload forward. They find and remove roadblocks. They address problems without micromanaging or taking over.

Image by Malachi Witt from Pixabay

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