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On leadership

Leadership is “a process of social influence in which one person can enlist the aid and support of others in the accomplishment of a common task.”

As part of the research for my upcoming book, “The Loneliness of Leadership,” I was contemplating this modern definition of leadership. Nearly a million books have been written on the subject of leadership, and the definition is one of the hundreds I came across.

But redefining leadership is not my primary intent; rather, I wish to open the curtain on it. I happen to agree with the definition above, but I also agree with almost every other description I read. They all seem thoughtful and plausible. However, I think people are missing the boat when they look for the secret recipe of leadership. The fact is, leadership means different things to different people, so a variety of definitions and interpretations are necessary and appropriate. Defining leadership is like defining art: you know it when you see it. Leadership, like art, needs to move you and create an emotional connection. The difference is, art is a one-to-one relationship, while leadership is a one-to-many relationship.

I am a fan of Warren Bennis, and his definition talks about vision and common purpose: “Leadership is the capacity to translate vision into reality.” That works for me as a consultant, but I don’t know if every leader necessarily needs to be a visionary. For example, a prison warden needs to lead through discipline and a set of rules. Warren may take me to task on what I have just said, but that’s my point. Leadership is and must be malleable. I also agree with Warren that “leaders are made, not born.” Leadership is a learned skill. The problem is, very few institutions teach it well.

Here are a few other lessons on leadership I have learned from interviewing numerous hospitality leaders:

  • It’s a group thing; leading yourself is between you and your god (if you have one).
  • Although leadership can be a lonely endeavor, it takes a group to allow leadership to form and prosper.
  • Influence is important in getting things accomplished — it’s a communications gambit.
  • Goals and rules are important to groups, and thus leaders are set in place to create, communicate, interpret and enforce them.
  • Commonality is important for group harmony but not for distinguishing leadership capability; leaders naturally stand out (they are uncommon to the group).
  • Purpose and meaning are what people look for in life; they want to feel part of something greater than themselves. Leaders provide context and focus in this regard.
  • Serving others is a desire of true leaders; a leader’s work is never done.
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