Leadership - a Performing Art

Like critics in a theater, we can analyze it - but only the gifted can truly lead

WE understand much of what is involved in leadership - vision, strategy, cooperation, integrity, trust, intuition, goal-setting, motivation, mobilization, productivity, and renewal. Yet paradoxically, however much we admire, appreciate, and recognize it, precise definitions remain elusive. Yet we do know that leadership is all about making things (good and bad) happen that might not otherwise happen and preventing things from happening that ordinarily would happen. It is the process of getting people to work together to achieve common goals and aspirations. Leadership is a process that helps people transform intentions into positive action, visions into reality.

Leadership involves the infusion of vision, direction, and purpose into an enterprise and entails mobilizing both people and resources to undertake and achieve shared ends.

Effective leadership remains in many ways the most baffling of the performing arts. There is an element of mystery about it. Intuition, flare, risk-taking, and sometimes even theatrical ability come into play. And leadership needs vary from organization to organization, culture to culture. There is no set formula. Individuals with ample leadership qualities and skills do not necessarily become effective leaders, often because of cultural or timing factors. The genius of leadership sometimes comes too early or too late, and an effective person in one setting can be a failure in another.

We know, however, that leadership needs in complex organizations and societies have to be viewed as an engagement between partners and collaborators. All of us are followers and, in a sense, all of us can lead. Followers, much more than is appreciated, often have considerable influence on their leaders.

When leadership takes place it involves a two-way communication and the mutual engagement of leaders and ``led.'' Hence it is essentially a collective enterprise; an ongoing, if subtle, interplay between common wants and a leader's capacity to understand and respond to these shared aspirations.

Leaders come in all sizes, shapes, and colors, and with varying dispositions. Some talk a lot and are center stage, like Mario Cuomo and Mikhail Gorbachev.

Others are more reflective and work behind the scenes, such as Jean Monnet and James Baker. Some lead by example: Joan of Arc or Mother Teresa. Others lead from jail or house arrest: Andrei Sakharov and Nelson Mandela. Certain writers, like Harriet Beecher Stowe or Rachel Carson, have helped to launch movements.

Some are colorless while others are charismatic. Some lead from within, like Abraham Lincoln and Florence Nightingale, while others, such as Susan Anthony and Martin Luther King Jr., organize grass-roots movements to bring pressure on the established power holders.

But, in common, virtually every leader has to have ideas and must contribute to the substantive thinking necessary to move an organization beyond problems and toward achievements. Leaders define reality, clarify options, and help remove the obstacles that make it difficult for the members of an organization to succeed.

The essence of the leader as artist is consciousness-raising and unlocking the energies and talents of fellow associates. Leaders at their best are not involved in doing great deeds so much as getting their followers to believe they can do great deeds and excel.

Leaders define and defend and promote values. Or they help redefine values, and understand when, in Lincoln's phrase, the dogmas of the past are inadequate for the stormy present. They understand when new circumstances call for new vision. Leaders are skilled listeners and learners, carefully consulting their own and their colleagues' values, beliefs, and passions.

As important as anything else, a leader has to nurture trust and self-confidence. Associates and followers expect leaders to have bold visions and to pursue them with enthusiasm. People being led yearn for a mission or vision that is clearly stated.

Yet followers will not support and strive to achieve something if they do not understand it and if they don't believe in it - and if they don't fully believe as well that their leaders believe in it.

While it is true that an effective manager is sometimes an effective leader and that leadership requires many of the skills of an effective manager, there are differences. Leaders infuse vision into an enterprise; they are preoccupied with purpose and the longer range dreams and aspirations of a society.

While a good manager is rightly concerned with efficiency, with routines and standard operating procedures, the creative leader acts as an inventor, risk-taker, and general entrepreneur, forever asking or searching for what is right, what is true, what is worth doing, and keenly sensing new directions, new possibilities, and welcoming change.

Leaders can delegate efficiency, yet they have to be responsible for effectiveness. Leaders dwell on the why and the purpose, while managers dwell on the how, the process. An effective organization needs plenty of managers as well as leaders. But leadership and managerial outlooks are often different and sometimes clash.

Leaders recognize the inevitability of conflict, partisan conflict, ideological conflict, and conflict among firms, nations, religions, and tribes. Leaders appreciate that conflict often has to be expressed as a means to some desired end.

Leaders do not shy away from conflict, they shape it and turn it to the advantage of their organizations. They exploit it, indeed, often welcome it as a chance to reorganize, reshape, and renew their organizations.

Leaders trust their intuitions. They know they cannot understand everything, and they recognize the role of intuition, hunch, and soft data. Intuitive leaders, relying on their greater peripheral vision, see what others often fail to see: They see the interrelationships and sense the connections between disparate facts and past experiences.

Finally, leaders are relentlessly optimistic. They believe in breakthroughs. They are alliance-builders who never give up. They often have a contagious self-confidence and incurable idealism that attracts others to join them and persevere. They instill enthusiasm in an organization by convincing people about what is important, right, and true. They enhance the possibilities for freedom and for change. Leaders build on strengths - their own, their colleagues', and the strengths and opportunities afforded by the situation.

Leadership, in sum, is hard to define and even harder to quantify because it is part purpose, part process, and part product; part the why and part the how; part the artistic and intuitive and only part the managerial.

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