This is my second blog post in a series that addresses what leadership is and is not. If you have not read the first post: Management is not Leadership, you can access it through the link. The third and final blog post: Developing Your Unique Leadership Style is also available.
What defines leadership?
For many years, my concept of leadership was unwavering. I saw it as the counterbalance to management, a force that ignited change instead of imposing stability, a beacon of vision and inspiration rather than a mechanical taskmaster. To me, a leader was someone with a profound mission, capable of inspiring people to strive for a greater purpose, a humble individual who understood the weight of power and the responsibility it carried, and someone who harnessed their influence to serve the team. My mantra became, “You are a leader if someone wants to follow you.” I aspired to embody this ideal of leadership.
But what truly defines leadership, and what characterises the ideal leader? Some advocate for leaders to step aside and let the team take the lead, while others champion leaders as catalysts, nurturing both individuals and the organisation. There’s also a call for leaders to immerse themselves in the daily lives of their employees. Leadership has been described with numerous admirable intentions in mind.
Me-dership, the selfish version of leadership
Yet, the term “leadership” is often misused, stripping it of its potency and transforming it into “Me-dership” rather than genuine leadership. In these instances, the focus shifts from the people being led to the leader themselves. Humble-bragging about selfless acts may become more about personal ego than a genuine commitment to a greater purpose. While I acknowledge personal ambitions as a driving force for leadership, I firmly believe that leadership must be tethered to a purpose beyond one’s ego and self-perception.
In their book, “Critical Perspectives on Leadership,” Mark Learmonth and Kevin Morrell eloquently dissect the language of leadership and the impact it has on workplace dynamics. They shed light on the fact that as far as most workplaces are concerned, more people despise their bosses than admire them. This criticism forces us to confront the way we often talk about leadership in overly positive terms. The book goes on to highlight an intriguing phenomenon: the rise of “Me-dership.”
“Me-dership” reflects the self-serving language that individuals use on social media to position themselves as leaders. It often involves humble-bragging – making false or incoherent claims of modesty. This style of communication is revealing because it shows how, while many aspire to the special status of being a leader, they simultaneously deny it.
Leadership, as Learmonth and Morrell argue, is often idealised and romanticised, and it perpetuates a denigration of the follower. The idea of leadership as something “sacred” or inherently distinctive can inadvertently create a hierarchy within organisations. When we celebrate leaders, we inadvertently shape everyone else as followers, dependent on their leaders for their work identity.
The word “leader” carries a wide range of cultural connotations and different shades of meaning. Unlike “manager,” which has a more industrial and work-related tone, “leader” can be applied in a broader context. However, the particular idealisation of leaders almost always involves a certain denigration of followers.
The selfie-style posts on social media, showcasing leadership in action, reveal a desire for leadership as a portable commodity. The act of positioning oneself as a leader often includes elements of humble-bragging – an attempt to maintain modesty while implicitly proclaiming one’s leadership.
Where to go from here
In light of these critical perspectives, it becomes clear that leadership is not a one-size-fits-all concept. It’s a multifaceted role that holds profound sway over individuals and organisations. The notion of leadership needs to be critically examined, and our idealised perceptions of leaders need to be reconsidered. Join me in exploring this nuanced perspective on leadership in my upcoming blog post.
In my next and final post in this series: Developing Your Unique Leadership Style, I’ll delve deeper into the idea that to become a leader, you must become a master in your own house. It’s about discovering and aligning your leadership style with your own personal values, embracing your unique personality, and finding your authentic path to leadership. Stay tuned for insights that challenge common misconceptions about leadership and offer a fresh outlook on how you can become an effective leader while staying true to yourself.