Leadership as a Discipline

Leadership is an interesting and wide-ranging subject. Google leadership, and you will find more than 3.7 billion results, which include everything from definitions and business articles on the topic to academic research, leadership-focused professional associations, and hundreds of training “solutions.”

Given the compendium of discussion on the topic, it is no surprise that there are myriad perspectives on it as well. When leadership is considered as a personal quality for example, it is a trait a person does or doesn’t have. 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.

Conversely, references to “toxic management,” narcissistic bosses, and clueless leaders are littered throughout business media and social feeds. These examples tell us of self-centered leaders, bosses with terrible people skills, ruthless executives, and even well-intentioned but misguided managers, often providing the evil counterpoint to our ideas of what a leader should be.

This hero-or-villain based view of leaders can put serious limitations on how we might think of building leadership skills. The real danger comes from the idealistic suggestion that effective leadership is really just about adopting the right persona. 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.

While there are many lessons to be learned from examples and stories, we have to look closely to find the habits, practices, skills, and decisions that underpin the leadership narrative. These stories give us thousands of reasons to consider leadership as a set of skills to be practiced, honed, and exercised over time. The discipline involves identifying and developing the adaptive skills, communication competencies, and routines that comprise effective leadership.

Strong leadership is work, pure and simple. It is not a persona, but a discipline of consistent management, strong 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 is a complex, dynamic, and adaptive process.

There is no sure-fire, always-effective formula for leadership. 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, complicated, sensitive, unstable, ambiguous, and emotional ⁠— 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, any leadership practice 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 motivational nonsense. They work with and through people to facilitate results. They find and remove roadblocks. They address problems without micromanaging or taking over. They practice leadership.

Image by Malachi Witt from Pixabay

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