by Dr. Jack King
Dr. Jack King is Founder and President of the NorthFork Center for Servant Leadership. NorthFork is a nonprofit organization fervently committed to introduce a new generation to the power of servant leadership. The NorthFork website is here.
Softly Awakes My Heart, Marian Anderson
What is Leadership?
Leadership is not a thing. It is not a process. Nor is it a position (or positional authority).
Leadership is not self-seeking, or self-serving. I’m not suggesting it ‘shouldn’t be;’ I’m saying it cannot be these things.
For example, Hitler used strife in Europe after WWI to further his own goal of seizing power. Do we say Hitler was among the worst leaders of all time, or do we say Hitler was no leader at all?
I know some would say he was a great leader, but for all the wrong reasons.
Is Leadership About Power, Or People?
If one says, leadership is about power, it becomes easy to discern a darker side of ‘leadership.’ It’s easier to see Hitler as a ‘leader.’
But does leadership simply refer to the act of ruling? Gaddafi, for example, may be said to rule Libya, but the world does not recognize him as a leader. Not after Gaddafi ordered his troops to fire on peaceful, unarmed protesters.
If leadership is about people, what we have instead is Hitler, Mussolini, or Stalin, among others. These men illustrate well for us the perils and pitfalls of power (e.g., hubris, nepotism, myopia, ineptitude, arrogance, and isolation).
These are not the same thing as leadership. They are qualities of one who rules, perhaps, but not leadership.
I contend leadership cannot be about people AND power. Said differently, maintaining power over people is not leadership. One can maintain power; that’s not hard. But that’s not leadership either. However, it probably explains why a lot of wrong people are chosen for leadership roles.
Is relentless manipulation and cruel intimidation leadership? Is the extermination of those who disagree with you leadership? Is the use of violence leadership? Is dictatorship leadership? Can leadership ever emerge from a regime of terror?
Is one who lords over another their leader? Is control leadership? Is manipulation, political or otherwise, leadership? Is coercion leadership?
If we are met with conquest, are we led? If we are subjugated, are we led? If we are mastered, are we led?
Leadership is Relationship
Let me suggest leadership is relationship; it’s a journey shared by those who choose to be led and those they choose to lead them. Mark Frankel puts it this way: leadership “is in part a moment, a chance opportunity, when someone steps forward and says, ‘This way, follow me.’
We also find that once the moment passes, the leader just as often steps back and allows others to lead. The notion of moment assumes context; there must be people to lead, a need for leadership, and someone capable of leading.”
I would add, it is up to the people to determine just who, in their hearts, has the capability to lead them. Mark goes on to say, leadership “is largely about understanding and connecting.”
John C. Maxwell teaches, “The measure of a leader is not the number of people who serve the leader, but the number of people served by the leader.” Leadership doesn’t just happen.
“Leadership,” according to Marian Anderson, “should be born out of the understanding of the needs of those who would be affected by it.” “Only when service for a common good is the primary purpose,” suggests Sheila Murray Bethel, “are you truly leading.” Otherwise, she says, “If leadership serves only the leader, it will fail.”
Kouzes and Posner point out, “Leaders do not focus on satisfying their own aims and desires; they respond to needs, interests of [others].” George Barna, a contemporary research scholar, reminds us leadership “is not about position, power, popularity, or perks; it’s about servanthood.” Native American wisdom can help us here. The Cherokee say, “To lead is to serve ….” Their Kiowa brothers and sisters put it this way: “A leader is a servant of the people.”
The fulfillment of leadership is the gratification of knowing that all of your efforts paid off in helping other people. Indeed, some of the best leaders are those that lead by being led. Perhaps that’s because a leader needs the people more than the people need the leader.
Why? Because leadership is love, and leadership without love is no leadership at all.
Therefore, if one is capable of love, s/he is capable of leadership.