What is leadership?

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When asked “What is leadership?” or What makes a good leader?” we all have an opinion. We might not agree with each other, although our survey this month indicates a fair degree of agreement as to the qualities a leader needs, but we are each clear in our own minds what leadership is. But it is a term that we do not very often use in our everyday lives.

When we talked about the collapse of the banks we talked about failure of management and not failures in leadership, though maybe we should have. We do talk about business leaders but really only as a vague collective. More often we use sporting terms, such as ‘captains‘ of industry. When we talk about our own work we don’t often refer to leaders in the workplace, we have supervisors and managers. In our own lives we rarely think of ourselves as leaders. I have a dog and I am more often led than I lead! With my son I try to act as a positive role model and offer advice and guidance but do I think in terms of being a leader? Probably not.

But there are two areas, both in the news at the moment where the term leader is most commonly applied and accepted.

The first is in politics and with a general election looming we are going to be hearing a lot from the leaders of the four main parties (yes, four..I’m in Scotland!) We refer to the Prime Minister as leader of the Labour Party, David Cameron as leader of the opposition and so on. These are the accepted terms. They are not managers of their respective parties but leaders. So what do we expect from our political leaders? More and more there seems to be a triumph of style over substance. Gordon Brown is urged to appear happier, resulting in the disastrous youtube grinning video. David Cameron has his portrait airbrushed to remove any blemishes to his complexion, resulting in him looking like a gameshow host. And with televised debates planned for the current election campaign, with questions and answers prepared in advance so that the leaders will have their answers readily to hand, the appearance of our leaders on the screen is set to become even more important.

We know what we want in a leader, you can check the survey to see what we all thought, but will we judge our political leaders by those criteria? Or, worse still, will we vote for the one who will offer the most to us as individuals without considering the bigger picture? And there is more and more talk of the benefits that might be gained from having a hung parliament – which means not having one single clear leader. Is this a sign that we want a more participative style of government or an indication that we don’t trust any of our leaders to lead alone.

The second common usage is in the church. We do talk of church leaders. Vicars and priests lead their congregations. The Pope is leader of the Catholic Church. We don’t think of them as managers of huge mulitinational organisations, which churches are, but as spiritual leaders. In religion even more so that in politics, people put there trust in their leaders. So what should happen when there is a failure of leadership. Putting aside the actuality of the child abuse that went on in Ireland there was then a failure in leadership in dealing with the horrors that had occurred. A failure in leadership that is continuing in Ireland and extends to the very top of the church. The loss of credibility sustained within the Irish church has stemmed from a lack of leadership, moral and practical. And is it right for one leader to to critise another in the way Anglican leaders have condemned their Catholic counterparts in Ireland? I think so. If we look to spiritual leaders for anything in the world today it is to speak out against abuse and the perpetrators of abuse wherever they see it, whether in far flung corners of the globe or right at home.

And I suppose there is a third arena where leader is used and that is in columns like this. I call this piece an editorial each month but columns such as this are called leaders and their authors leader writers. The leader sets the direction for the journal and I look forward to continuing to do so for the3rdi magazine.

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