Leaders versus Leadership

Professor Rune Todnem By, MBA and Senior Leader Master’s Degree Apprenticeship course leader

r.t.by@staffs.ac.uk   @Prof_RuneTBy


Leadership is often defined as “something leaders do”, and this common (mis)understanding is the cause of much confusion, conflict, and under-utilisation of resources in both organisations and the wider society. Finding themselves somewhat pre-occupied developing superhero Teflon-shoulders, flip-flopping around meeting short-term targets in support of their own survival, bonuses, the next step up the career-ladder, and a golden pension others can only dream of, too many formal leaders simply don’t have any time left to provide leadership. However, many who don’t perceive themselves as leaders do provide leadership. Tons of it – every day (that is if we could measure it in metrics). When cheering on your child, supporting a colleague, taking your grandparent to a doctor’s appointment, picking up some litter, or volunteering in a club or society, you are in fact undertaking acts of leadership through actively contributing to a better society.

To live in a society which we like to refer to as highly advanced and developed, we are rather backwards.  Many of our institutions and organisations are still operating under the Great Man concept, with one all-powerful, strong and macho leader whose word is law. This is often a person we all tip-toe around and tell what they want to hear. Well, this reflects power – not leadership. Leadership is the activity of undertaking a journey together in order to deliver on a common good. As with migrating geese, it is less important who is flying first. What is important is where we are going and going first is something we all need to take in turn.

Although we are somewhat obsessed with titles, power, status and salaries, leadership is something we do – not who we are. The activity of leadership is not the prerogative of a small, exclusive group of ordained individuals. It is a shared responsibility none of us can abdicate from. Unfortunately, we are living in a country where class still defines us. Who our parents are, the post code we live at, and where we receive our education all matters, when it shouldn’t. As a result, many of our formal leaders are made from the same mould with the same notion of privilege. As a result, many who could provide leadership are never given the opportunity. Such a status quo is holding us back. Simples.

I am pro-leadership with a view full of hope. Just imagine what we can achieve as a city and society by releasing the leadership ability and energy in us all. Imagine the potential! Once upon a time not too long-ago, women were perceived as less able than men, and ethnic minorities less able than white people. These things have thankfully changed, and not a minute too soon. However, what hasn’t changed yet, is an equally outdated view that leadership can only be provided by a small group of all too often, white, middle-aged, privileged men. Because surely, no one else can provide leadership…

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