Letting Go of “Leadership”

This week I had the opportunity to experience a leadership workshop facilitated by Scott Alexander, an author, speaker and coach from Maryland. I had previously spoken to Scott on the phone (and read his book, Lead Like a Black Belt), but this was my first experience with Scott in person. I was not disappointed, and the session involved a robust discussion of what leadership is and, most important, what it’s not. In fact, I found myself repeatedly provoked in my thinking and emotions around leadership and, in particular, the leadership gaps and misconceptions in our culture. In pondering the question – What is leadership? – I arrived at a startling conclusion. Leadership is irrelevant!

Yes, you heard me right. It became so clear to me this week that we have so diluted the concept of leadership that it has virtually no meaning. The most important result of this dilution is that we are all experiencing a staggering lack of leadership. If we don’t know what leadership is, we’re misguided about leadership, or we’re not even having an authentic conversation about leadership, how can we expect to have people showing up as leaders? Just as true, if we have lumped every possible element of favorable human behavior, management skill, and business acumen into the definition of “leadership,” then it (leadership) fails to have any meaning. We can’t possibly develop and grow leaders for our businesses, communities, families, and world if this is the case.

We are in need of leadership in every part of our lives, and it’s time to do more than just hope for more leaders and stronger leadership. If we want leadership, we (each one of us – you and me) need to claim the essence of leadership and make it part of who we are. The time is now because people everywhere are waiting for leaders to show up in their lives.

I could write pages on the discussions and insights on leadership from this week’s workshop, but I want to focus most on what was not included as a core element of leadership. In answer to the question – what are the key elements of a leader? – the gathering listed 63 different leadership qualities or traits (e.g., humble, creative, brave, visionary, driven, financially knowledgeable, bright, assertive, etc.). We then went on to agree that rarely if ever do we experience a leader with all (or even nearly all) of these qualities.

In fact, if we now define leadership to encompass 63 different attributes (or more), how can we ever find a leader or grow leaders? After a disruptive (in a good way) discussion of the many perspectives, angles and views of leadership, we arrived at this short list of core elements – inspiration, impact, forward momentum, empowerment and doing the right thing. And what was missing? This is the leadership element that I believe MUST exist in order for anyone to be and grow as a leader: Self-Awareness.

Awakenings happen through self-awareness. Reflection and inside truth-telling require self-awareness. Growth happens through self-awareness. Shifts happen through self-awareness. For me, there can be no leader (and no leadership) without self-awareness, and yet it didn’t even make the seemingly exhaustive list. Why? Because we’ve so overused and “under” stood the concept of leadership that it’s become a bucket into which we can potentially toss anyone.

While I believe that everyone has leadership in them, we’ve made the concept so broad that we don’t even know what it is (or can be), and therefore we can’t find leaders or leadership. Thus my conclusion that leadership today is irrelevant!

It’s time to dump the old, stale and minimized concepts of leadership in favor of some new vision of leadership focused on values, intention, vulnerability, purpose, impact, influence, and heart. Most important, the direction of the heart is vital – is it focused inside (personal success, acknowledgement, recognition, position, and control), or is it focused outside (service to others and to a mission beyond the self)? This is the question that is at the heart of leadership.

Where have all the leaders gone? That’s the wrong question. The better and right question is this: where have all the people gone who are ready to engage, commit and invest in serving others and creating a purposeful ripple in every nook and cranny of the world? That, to me, is the heart of leadership, and until I have a more meaningful definition, I will know it when I see it (and I’ll definitely know when I don’t see it).



  1. This is a great article. It is not the usual trite, mumbo jumbo one sees all the time in management books and articles.

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