Since there are clearly no lack of books on the topic of leadership and, now, since there are a growing number of blogs and so-called experts on the topic of leadership and organizations, the logical question is Why the need for one more contributor to the topic? That’s a good question, and one that should probably be asked again and again. For nearly the past two decades, I have served in the capacity of administrative leadership at a college and a theological seminary known as the University of Dubuque. Over the years, I have learned a lot about leadership; much of it from mentors, by watching good leaders in action, by paying attention to what is going on around me, by reading and reflecting, and by being well tutored at the school of hard knocks. From my perspective, there are at least two fundamental problems with most discussions on leadership today.
First, there is an implicit assumption that the world is divided between leaders and followers. Books, then, are written by and about well-known leaders like former Presidents, world leaders, famous mayors, politicians and athletic personalities. People who are like us, but not like us at all, really. There is almost always a “rags to riches, overcoming of great obstacles” tone to these narratives that is, quintessentially, American, I believe. Horatio Alger still lives…sort of. But what about people like you and me? How do we fit in that narrative? Secondly, there is another model of leadership that I would like us to think about, together. That is, I propose that we think about leadership not in terms of a zero-sum, there are leaders and there are followers kind of way, but in a way that is described by James Davison Hunter in his recent book to Change the World.
Hunter describes leadership… “…as a set of practices surrounding the legitimate use of gifts, resources, position, and therefore influence (or relational power). But leadership is not simply one half of a dichotomy that divides the world between leaders and followers…nor does it operate on a single continuum where more influence for one person or group will mean less for another. [Rather], the fact is that our lives are constituted by multiple spheres of activity and relationship—not just one–and in each of these, we have varying kinds and evolving degrees of influence. [In other words], it is our influence within the range of spheres of activity and relationship that defines the leadership we exercise (255).”
Leadership happens, in other words, in our families, places of worship, communities, work environment, clubs and, most importantly, in each capacity we are accountable for the leadership we exercise by our children, parents, colleagues, constituents, and students. Leadership is a “…trust between those who lead and all those to whom the leader is answerable, so when that trust is violated…leadership loses its legitimacy (256).” Understanding leadership in this way underscores a fundamentally different approach to thinking about what it means to lead. At some level we, all of us, exercise leadership and, therefore, bear a certain amount of responsibility for maintaining the “trust” in and among those relationships. If leadership is understood more as the stewardship of “trust” as opposed to the acquisition of power or fame we, together, are accountable for the condition of our lives, our communities, and world around us.