Leadership happens at the intersections of values, characteristics, relationships, situations, and cultural contexts.
In a previous post I shared a video of a talk on harmful leadership that I did as part of TedxCCS. In this video I briefly mention the importance of looking at where different elements of leadership intersect with one another and understanding that leadership is not about bulleted lists. To understand leadership and leaders, it is important to examine how a leader’s traits, personality, values and characteristics intersect with situations, cultural environments, and followers. This blog is an initial attempt to think through this idea.
It is easy to look at leaders and select some traits from them and claim if everyone follows these traits then they will be successful. Yet, no matter how often we do this and no matter how many different ways we present these traits, leaders with those exact same traits still fail. The reason for this is that we do not look at how those traits intersect with everything around the leader. Leaders are not islands unto themselves. Rather they are very much rooted in their situations, cultural environments, and relationships with their followers.
When we start to see the importance of the intersections of these areas, we recognize that leaders are only one part of leadership. Leadership becomes much more holistic and complex. For example, modern leadership theories tell us that it is the leader’s ability to create a vision that is vital to success but if we use an intersectional model of leadership, this trait (the ability to create a vision) or action (creating the vision) is only a small part of the equation. This trait/action must be examined through how it intersects with other traits or abilities of the leader (i.e. communication skills, creativity), the values of the leader (i.e. desire for power), the relationships with followers, the situation in which the leader operates, and the cultural environment. There are many people who are visionary but they fail to move their vision forward. A visionary’s success or failure is more than just the personal aspects of the person. Leadership is more than the sum of the individual.
Leadership has become something to be thought of in terms of numbered items. Some of the more popular leadership books include all kinds of numbers from 3 to 21 that proclaim if you follow their list you can be successful. Other books proclaim they can show people how to lead more effectively and inevitably if you open those books, you will find a description of skills, traits, or actions you need to take and everyone will follow you.
I think one of the reasons we develop bulleted lists is because it makes discussing leadership neat and easy. We can talk about the leader and claim that is all we need to know about leadership. What I am proposing is messy and not easy. It is no longer enough to say that a leader can do six (or pick any number) things from a list and be successful. To see why a visionary person succeeds or fails as a leader requires us to connect the dots with not just other elements of the leader (i.e. values, personality) but also with the specific situation within which the person is involved, how this situation is occurring within a specified cultural context, and how the followers relate to the leader. Immediately, it becomes apparent why we go with the simple bulleted list and say being visionary is important. Once we begin to bring in all of these other areas, we now find ourselves unable to provide easily digestible information. It is easier to train leaders if we can point to certain characteristics and encourage people to improve those characteristics. It is another matter to train people to have a critical eye to examine all of the different elements that influence them, others, leadership, and followership.
Another issue is when we start talking about leadership as something not invested in just the leader, it means we are giving up control. There is a piece of advice that I sometimes see that says something like, “Be concerned about only those things you can control and let everything else go.” This can be great advice in certain situations but not for leadership. It would be wonderful if leaders could only focus on themselves and then everything they did would be great. Unfortunately, or maybe fortunately, this is not how leadership works. Leadership is more distributed than that.
Leadership is spread out among situations, cultures, followers, and oh yeah, the people who are considered the leaders. This can lead to a scary situation in which the leader realizes that her success is not based on just her thoughts and actions (or those things she can control) but is based on so many interconnecting parts that may just be beyond her control. How much easier it is to believe in lists of learnable behaviors!
Here is a quick diagram about what intersectional leadership may look like.
First things first. I am not artistic in any sense of the word. The above is a very poor representation of what I am trying to show. It might surprise some of you to know that this is supposed to be a leadership collage. I know, it still needs work but I thought I would put it out there. There are probably other things I have left out at this point.
I went with a collage image to demonstrate how all of the areas interact. Each element is based on the other and no one is more important than the other. Each piece may be placed in a different location and interact with different variables.
When I experience a collage, I often perceive elements juxtaposed in unexpected ways and this is how I think of leadership. There are no discrete barriers between the different elements listed above but rather they overlap with one another, build up and under each other, and come to have a new life and meaning beyond their original intent. The collage can disrupt the meanings we have put on the objects in it and it forces us to rethink what we believe. For me a collage metaphor for leadership helps us to open up to non-linear approaches to thinking about ourselves, leadership, followership, and our relationships. It opens us up to thinking about the intersections of leadership and not its discrete elements. *
One thing I want explain is that I purposely separated leader and follower characteristics from the general leader and follower section. For me when I am referring to characteristics I am thinking of things like race, gender, sexual orientation, disability, and other such areas. By including it under the general term leader or follower those characteristics get subsumed and I do think they are important enough as to need to be separated from the other elements to ensure they are considered in any conversation on leadership.
I think this model also helps us to understand that leadership is not just an action, process, or style. It is all of these things along with being a relationship, and it is emergent and changeable. Simply put, it is not formulaic. If it were as simple as following a formula, everyone would be a successful leader.
I wrote more than anticipated so I will stop this blog here.
*I have previously discussed this idea of leadership as a collage in Building Leadership Bridges 2011 in Improvising Transformation: Leadership Lessons from Improvisational Theater.