Anyone given the task of dissecting leadership is at a serious disadvantage before they even start. The word itself defies any attempt at accurate or precise definition. It also comes with other complications - it is not a constant; can only really be judged within a unique, historical context; and this usually means we have to judge leadership with the benefit of hindsight. Mahatma Gandhi’s leadership being one of the most obvious examples. His potential only really found its outlet during the Train Journey in South Africa and even then he had plenty of critics and detractors. Nevertheless, we all still tend to believe we can recognise true leadership when we see it even if we realise that, as with beauty, any assessment of leadership remains firmly in the eye of the beholder. Yet the fact that there is no universal measure of leadership does not stop us trying to search out, nurture and develop leadership. The potential rewards for getting it right and the risk of getting it wrong are both just too huge to ignore.
So if we do manage to put leadership under the ‘microscope’ would even the most powerful magnification be able to identify the defining and distinguishing features and characteristics behind the leadership abilities of a Lal Bahadhur Shastri (Freedom Fighter from India) or a Nelson Mandela? More worryingly, would a detailed look at their DNA only conclude that there is not much difference between the famous and the infamous? Perhaps there is only an infinitesimal, biological quirk that distinguishes them from a Hitler or a Stalin. Leaders come in all shapes, sizes and hues so do we just hope that we get the ones who share our own views? Do we ever know what value they might bring to society or can we actually do something to make that happen? Maybe this whole subject needs a really different perspective if we are to gain any fresh insights.
The value of leadership
The purpose of leadership is to realise the maximum value of human potential
This is quite a handy definition. It rules out Hitler and Stalin straight away and fits very nicely with Swami Vivekananda’s call “Arise, Awake and Stop Not till the Goal is Reached”. It is a very tough standard. Why would we want anything less from our leaders? It is also a ‘societal value’ view of leadership. It subscribes to the game theory concept of win-win.
‘Leadership’ that can only produce gains for some at the expense of others is of no interest to society as a whole. The only problem with this definition is that the key word in it, ‘value’, is itself notoriously difficult to define. So what exactly does value mean?
As the Leadership Trust version refers to “business performance” let us start by asking what value means in a business context. Should we look at market value as a gauge of leadership? On that measure Jack Welch would score very highly on the leadership scale because GE has a huge market value ($382 billion in April 2005) although he earned his nickname of ‘neutron Jack’ because of his obsession of getting rid of people and leaving the buildings standing. Bill Gates could be another candidate, not only in view of the enormous market value of Microsoft ($272 billion) but also because of his philanthropic foundation which gives billions of dollars to good causes and his clear aim of trying to eradicate diseases such as malaria.
The other perspective that might aid our thinking is the world of sport. What better environment to discuss leadership and human endeavor: pushing people to the absolute limit of their potential in the pursuit of excellence? So who is a better leader Mahendra Singh Dhoni (Captain- Chennai Super Kings), Adam Gilchrist (Deccan Chargers) or Anil Kumble (Bangalore Royal Challengers)? Or is that just another trick question played on us by this elusive thing we call leadership? Are Cricket Captains just that - managers? Surely leaders have to unite people who may have interests that are not that easy to reconcile. Cricket boards do not seem to involve any real debate anymore about what its board, its players and its supporters’ value. No one seems to be too interested in cricketers becoming role models of teamsmanship or sportsmanship. Their goal is as clear as a goal is ever going to be - to win the Championships. The supporters of these teams must be willing ‘followers’ and self-selecting. There is no sense here of the real, fundamental challenge of leadership, which is actually to try and get maximum value out of people when some of them do not really want to play ball.
It looks like every attempt to answer a leadership question results in just another more complicated question being posed. So, in a determined effort to produce a better way forward let us take a step back and begin right back at the beginning. What is the purpose of leadership and, more importantly from a practical perspective, what is the basic proposition that drives our interest in leadership development? Then we can ask how better definition and measurement might help.