Does Being in a Leadership Position = Leadership?

At a recent social gathering the discussion turned to jobs and the workplace. Eventually the conversation focused on leadership and what constitutes effective leadership in the workplace. The group was composed of four individuals who work for private-for-profit companies, two individuals who work for public education, and one individual who works for higher education.

The not surprising aspect of this discussion was the agreement about two things. The first was an agreement on behaviors that result in effective leadership. The second was an agreement that just holding a leadership position in a company or an organization does not automatically result in effective leadership. It was clear that just because a person serves in a leadership position within the company or organization that person may not demonstrate the skills and behaviors that cause others to want to follow that “leader”. In fact, there was strong agreement that effective leadership may be rare with individuals who are in leadership positions and that effective leadership, many times, comes from others in the company and organization, regardless of the person’s position.

While this discussion was not even close to a scientific study or anything that would resemble an academic dialogue, it did cause me to reflect upon two questions. The first question is; what are the skills or behaviors that others recognized as necessary for effective leadership? And the second question is; why are so many individuals in leadership positions perceived as not demonstrating effective leadership skills and behaviors?

The first question was pretty simple to sort out. As I listened to the members of the group discuss the critical elements of effective leadership, I was quickly reminded of the work of James Kouzes and Barry Posner in their book, The Leadership Challenge. Much of the conversation reflected what I have learned in my own experience and has been identified in the book by the authors.

The most prominent aspect discussed was the issue that individuals in leadership positions do understand that they need to be able to show the way or provide a vision for the organization or the company. What they don’t understand, or at least fail to demonstrate, is that they need to be able to communicate that vision is such a way that the followers see it or “get it”. The discussion indicated that many individuals in leadership positions share their vision, but in such abstract and conceptual ways that their followers don’t really understand what the leader is intending. Many times this lack of shared vision does not lead to inspiration by the followers. Instead, it often leads to confusion or misunderstanding of what is intended, resulting in miscommunication, distrust, and uncertainty about what to do next.

Related to this is the inability of the positional leader to communicate the vision for their followers. Many times these individuals were described as being so focused on the clouds that they could not address the day-to-day operational aspects of the organization or the company. Some members of the group even described the positional leaders as being really distanced from the “real people”. When the positional leaders were asked for more clarification of the direction needed, the positional leaders would skirt the issue or, in the worst case, consider the questions non-supportive of the vision and become very defensive.

As I reflected on this first question and found that I could at least identify answers, I began to experience the second question as it took focus in my mind. Why are some positional leaders not perceived as effective leaders by their followers? As I pondered this question and with few, if any, answers, I found myself thinking how did these individuals become leaders and why are they allowed to continue to lead? While the group discussion in no way provided me any possible answers, I do have my own unscientific and judgmental perspectives that continually nag me for solutions. If I can find the answers to these questions perhaps I can find the path to my next career.

Meanwhile, I find plenty to do to help individuals and organizations to understand the critical role that leadership plays in directing organizations into their future. The development and preparation of future leaders is essential to the success and sustainability of organizations. We need to be creating ways to identify potential leaders and providing opportunities to help them develop and demonstrate the skills and behaviors of effective leadership.

Until the next time, keep reflecting on the second question and look for possible answers that can help organizations and companies grow and enhance their work.