Questions about Leadership

What is leadership? What makes someone a leader? Why should we care who is a leader? Who should be a leader? What should leaders do? What is good leadership?

Submitted by Recomposition on June 11, 2011

What is Leadership?

Whatever else there is to say, leadership is. Choose your term – real, objective, material, actual… whatever we call it, leadership is. Leadership exists. Clarity about leadership in general is important for helping understand what is going on in the social environment in our actual workplaces.

Leaders are people who other people look to. In many workplaces, neighborhoods, families, and other human groupings, some people look to and look at each other in different ways. There are often people whose views and voices carry more weight than others. When these people speak, other people listen more. These people’s opinions have a greater shaping power on the opinions of others. Whatever else there is to say about this, it simply is the case that this happens. These people are leaders. Leadership is a relationship within human collectivities. Leaders occupy a certain role.

Leadership is not command. Leadership is not forcing others or imposing one’s will on others. Leadership is a relationship, in which leaders use their will to encourages others to activate their will.

What makes someone a leader?
The short answer is that the other people do – the people who a person leads. If we’re trying to identify existing leaders, that’s enough: we find out who leaders are by people to see who they respect and trust and pay more attention to. We can also find out who leaders are by asking people who they respect and look up to. People rarely call this “leadership” or call the people they respect “leaders,” so it’s not helpful to say “take me to your leader.”

Why should we care who is a leader?

There are a few reasons to care about who is a leader at work. If we want to accomplish something, we are more likely to succeed if the leaders agree with us. This is not to say that we should just let what leaders want call all the shots, it’s just that the views of leaders matter for what we want to do. For anything we want to accomplish, it will be harder if the leaders oppose us or don’t support us, and it will be easier if the leaders support us. This means we first need to identify who is a leader, then we need to build relationships with the leaders, then we need to try to change their minds. If we can’t change their minds, then we need to try to neutralize them as a leader, by engaging with the people they lead to erode their position as a leader in relationships to others.

Less often, radicals are already leaders at work. They might not always understand this or feel comfortable with it. Radicals who are leaders need to know that they are leaders, and need to be conscious and deliberate about what they do with their leadership. Often leaders are not fully aware of their leadership role and don’t always use it consciously. Part of what we want is to make leaders aware of their leadership role and get them to use their leadership deliberately, in favor of our goals. This is just as true for leaders who are already radicals as it is for anyone else.

Being a leader is often uncomfortable. Stepping up to the tasks of leadership is often hard work. Neither of these is an excuse for shirking those tasks. Furthermore, if one simply is not up to the tasks then one must be honest about that, certainly to one’s self, rather than make excuses and obfuscations.

Who should be a leader?

Another reason we should care about leadership is that we want leaders to be radicals and radicals to be leaders. We should try to win existing leaders to radical ideas and current radicals who are not yet leaders at work should try to become leaders. This idea often makes many radicals uncomfortable. Remember though that leadership meanings being respected and trusted by people, leaders are people whose words carry a lot weight with other people. Radicals should be leaders, because radical ideas should spread and radical ideas should be associated with respected, trustworthy people. So, who should be leaders? Radicals. This should be one of our goals in organizing.

What should leaders do? What is good leadership?

Leaders can do numerous things with their position. Not all leaders know they are leaders. Leadership is a responsibility. To each according to need. But also from each according to ability. If some have abilities that they don’t use or don’t use fully, in a collective context, they let that collective down.

Leadership can be exercised better and worse; leadership is a relationship and in another sense it is a practice to be learned. The practice of leadership is in part a matter of what one does with one’s relationships as or position of leader. This practice is highly context and task specific. Considering leadership as a position or relation, it is relatively similar across groups. Considering leadership as a practice, leadership in a family has common elements with but is different from leadership in a workplace, a neighborhood, etc. To put it another way, different locations, times, and conditions create different tasks for leaders. Good leaders deal well with the tasks they face; generalizing across these tasks is difficult but merits further thought.

Using leadership well – and building and maintaining leadership – often involves listening and questioning. It also involves proposals and positive suggestions. Sometimes groups lack leaders, or leaders are unaware of their position and so don’t propose courses of action, or leaders deliberately don’t propose courses of action. People who have the ability to move others and who don’t do so are more responsible than others are for the lack of movement that results. Those who are able – due to experience and acquired skills and knowledge – to propose courses of action and who don’t do so bear a large share of the responsibility for negative results. When a group must react to a situation, the people who others look to for guidance have a greater responsibility to the circumstances, because if the leaders act the right way they can improve the situation. When someone looks to another, the one looked upon has a responsibility to the one looking: leaders have responsibilities to those for whom they are leaders.

Leadership does not have to be but ought to be dynamic, temporary and transitional: leaders ought to cultivate others as leaders, to spread and share leadership rather than monopolize leadership. Leaders should to develop in others those qualities that make the leaders be the leaders.

Leadership should not be pursued for its own sake, but for the ends that result from its exercise. The development of others as leaders, however, should be pursued for its own sake because the development of others’ capacities is a good in itself.