What? What exactly is leadership?
One of the best ever writers on the subject is the venerable John C Maxwell and he is always worth turning to, to help with this question.
You might imagine the answer is rarely a single succinct word but a number of concepts combine when he tries to define what leadership is.
The phrase that caught my eye in my reading recently is “Leadership is the courage to put oneself at risk”. The very act of leadership, of assuming leadership, is an act of risk, and it is not to everyone’s taste. Therefore leadership is not a path that everyone chooses to tread and perhaps nor should it be. True leadership and being popular are therefore strange bedfellows and it could be argued that they are incompatible.
I know from my personal experience that the very best leaders that I have had the pleasure of meeting were also some of the most uncompromising and paradoxically the most respected.
Popularity and respect are not, of course, the same thing. Often popularity comes from saying what people want to hear whereas respect comes from trading in the truth, no matter how difficult that might be to hear.
Respect comes from being fair, being consistent and being reliable. Respect doesn’t depend on short termism but is a status that is earned over time.
Our politicians have an almost impossible task. Their power comes from being elected, a largely popularity based event, and yet when in power we expect them to take the tough decisions, even when those decisions may be unpopular.
Being a great leader involves the risk of being unpopular, of speaking your truth, of taking the difficult rather than the easy path of standing up for what is right.
People like Mandela, Gandhi and Jesus Christ exemplify extreme leadership. Leadership is a responsibility, a challenge and a privilege worth stepping up for. If we as leaders are not prepared to accept the challenge and take the risk, the people who lose out are the people who depend upon us, so we owe it to ourselves to make sure we are up to the task.
“Contrary to the opinion of many, leaders are not born; they are made. And they are made by hard effort.” Vince Lombardi