People can be bad. Bosses can be bad. People can do bad things and influence others to do bad things. Maybe it’s time to stop calling these people leaders.
For too long, I thought that a leader was someone of recognized importance. They had a title, power or authority. It turns too many people, maybe most people, still think that way. It’s given the term leadership a bad rap. It makes some people uncomfortable to even hear the word leader because they associate it with a bad boss they worked for.
How a school teacher reacted to the term leader
Recently I gave a speech before a community group about leadership. The group was made up of a variety of people from many different occupations and interest. A school teacher came up to me after the program and said she didn’t feel that developing leaders would solve anything. She said she had seen some very bad leaders who were administrators at schools where she worked.
Her concern caught me off guard because I always look at leadership and leaders in a positive light. The issue wasn’t how I see leadership or the leadership characteristics I believe are the core of an effective leader. It was the simple fact that she didn’t have the same definition of a leader I did. She thought a leader was anyone with a management or supervisory title!
Are we doing enough to define what a leader is and isn’t?
This caused me to wonder just how many people actually think this is what a leader is. If others like myself are talking about the virtues of leadership while some members of the audience have a very different definition then Houston…we have a problem. I do take the time to define what a leader is and what leadership means in my speeches.
This was a wakeup call for me. Now it’s clear to me that I have to devote more time with a lot more audience involvement to shift these ingrained perceptions of leadership. Those of us in the leadership choir may too quickly define leadership and move on because we believe it’s so obvious what a leader is and isn’t.
These common perceptions of leadership have been deeply driven into people’s thoughts through the frequent and excessive reference to anyone with a title as a leader. We literally face a huge marketing challenge in shifting this perception.
We’re calling too many people leaders who aren’t
Look around you and you will notice that organizations, the media, academics, employees and people on the street call those in important positions leaders. What’s more alarming is they then will say these people are either good or bad leaders.
Are heads of state, CEOs, university provosts, laboratory directors, ministers, coaches, managers, directors or parents who do bad things leaders? Doesn’t it make more sense to say that those who fail to voluntarily influence people to do good things are not leaders at all?
We call groups of people in an organization who have these positions the “leadership team.” More and more Fortune 500 corporations are starting to call their senior officers or top management group their “leadership team.”
Can all the members of that “leadership team” actually lead people by voluntarily influencing them to do good things? Based on Gallup’s employee engagement surveys of millions of employees, there are a lot of mediocre to bad bosses out there. Yet their organizations call all of them leaders!
The term has been said so many times by so many that most people have come to think of a leader as anyone in a position of importance. Hence they believe there can be such a thing as a good and bad leader. This is sending people the wrong message and hurting our ability to inspire more people to become leaders.
A call to tighten the reins on the use of the term leader and leadership
I believe the problem is not with the terms leader and leadership. It’s in our failure to accurately and clearly define what a leader is and what leadership means. Please read my articles What Is a Leader and What Is Leadership and The Five Myths of Leadership to better understand how I’ve come to define these terms.
It’s time to pull in the reins on the use of these terms so they mean what they are supposed to mean. That cuts out all the people who can’t voluntarily influence people, who do bad things, who influence others to do bad things, the bad bosses and more. None of those people are leaders. Period.
Sorry Hitler, Stalin, the head of ISIS and the head of the KKK. You are not and never were a leader. The head of Enron was not a leader. The head of most banks and mortgage lenders before the recession were not leaders. All the bad bosses out there are not leaders. People who influence people or order people to do bad things are simply not leaders at all.
Fortune 500 corporations need to stop calling their senior officers their leadership team. All organizations need to stop calling those in management leaders. The media and academics do too. This begs the question of whether these people are a leader or not.
There is a difference between leadership and management
This also makes the term leadership meaningless because than it is no more than a synonym for management. We have two excellent terms that mean different things. That difference is critical if we are to effectively develop people into both managers and leaders.
Of course there can be a bad manager, bad strategist and more. It seems to me that leadership isn’t a function that you either do well or poorly. By the very nature of what it means to be a leader, you are either a leader or you are not a leader. There really isn’t any such thing as a bad leader because that means someone is not a leader at all.
Leadership isn’t about your title, position, power or authority. You don’t need any of that to be a leader and having that doesn’t make you a leader. Leadership is about your character…who you are. If we are going to inspire a lot more people to become leaders, the type of leaders who produce good results and help build a better world, we need to create the right perception of what a leader is. Now would be a good time to start.
Schedule a phone conversation with Don Shapiro, President of First Concepts Consultants, to answer your questions and explore how these ideas could help your organization.