Exercising Leadership

Direction, protection, order these are the things that might be typically associated with a leadership role. Direction - help define where we are going. Protection - shield the team from de-stabilising influences. Order - put structures and frameworks in place to enable the work.  But is this leadership?  Or rather is this simply us doing our job as managers and meeting the expectations of the system that sits around us?

According to Heifetz, Linsky and Grashow, this is not leadership.  Sure, its important work, and lets face it, if we didn’t do it, we wouldn’t have a job but its not leadership.  

So what is leadership?

Leadership is not a role, not a person, not a job title.  Leadership is an act or a behaviour.  We can all exercise leadership some of the time, but none of us can exercise leadership all of the time. Why?

Because exercising leadership only occurs when we push beyond the boundaries of our authority.  Its the point where we make people uncomfortable by not doing as they want, or when we actually do something they definitely didn’t want!  These successful acts of leadership push beyond the boundaries of our normal authority, generate resistance from others, but do create change.  Without these acts, status quo will always prevail.  If we push too far too fast we fail the system spits us out, and if we push too unskilfully (in a way that damages the relationships we have with the people around us) then we also fail, and some of our authority to act is removed.

Therefore exercising leadership is inherently risky.  To quote Linsky Leadership is about disappointing your own people at a rate they can absorb.  And this is what I am sitting with as I reflect on my own leadership.  What are the values I hold dear which make it challenging for me to disappoint those around me?  And how do these values conflict with other values I hold which spur me on to catalyse change?  According to Linsky, until we can resolve our underlying values conflicts the status quo in our organisations will always prevail.


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