Leadership Misunderstood

The widely regarded founder of modern leadership studies, James MacGregor Burns, observed, “Leadership is one of the most observed and least understood phenomena on earth” (Burns, 1978, p. 3). Why is this so? 

Too many of us think of the leader as the “hero.” This colors our understanding of leadership. We grew up entranced by one part of the leadership equation, the leader…forgetting all about the follower. As a consequence, look how leadership is defined: what the leader does, what the resources the leader has (power, authority, position, charisma, skills, giftedness), and what the leader should do “next.” These are all important elements but we’re missing the big picture, we’re missing the relationship. 

And the popular literary approach to leadership doesn’t help much. The leader is the hero who has great stories to tell. In fact, many books on leadership are in essence a compilation of leadership proverbs. Don’t get me wrong, stories are good. I like a good collection of “leadership nuggets” as much as the next person. The problem is that the stories are used to offer up a principle or a piece of advice usually focused on the leader. We’re paying attention to only part of the leadership equation. 

What Burns and others after him realized is that leadership is about a relationship. A relationship between a leader-follower. And while you can offer all kinds of advice and helpful comments, stringing nuggets together cannot do justice to a relationship. Especially when it’s focused on the leader alone. Why is leadership so misunderstood? We’ve only been looking at one part of it.


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