Why Can’t Leaders Just be Leaders?

Why Can’t Leaders Just be Leaders?

Too often, it seems, we put non-leaders into leadership positions and we call them leaders. Non-leaders filling leadership roles is disruptive enough to any organization; it confuses and demoralizes the workers and contributors. This non-leader is ultimately removed and we assign – another non-leader. And the cycle repeats again, and again, and again. Serial non-leaders being called leaders when all they really are is the “boss.”

This situation spawns many other unfortunate outcomes and highlights very clearly that globally both our leadership development and leadership selection processes are badly flawed. There is certainly no lack of information on leadership. We have copious literature, think tanks, college degrees, institutes, and many other organizations and individuals who have studied, written, and pontificated on leadership for many, many years. Yet a cursory look at our major institutions (which I categorize as government and politics, business and industry, and religion and charities) shows clearly that the lack of leadership globally is hindering our development as a civilized people.

Today I want to address just a tiny slice of this issue. We have adulterated the word “leadership” to the point that it no longer has any meaning. It used to be that we had a collective conscience about what a leader was. George Patton in World War II comes to mind. Abraham Lincoln, Mother Teresa, Malala Yousafzai, Tim Cook, and all of the original Mercury astronauts qualify, and perhaps not just as leaders but as heroes as well. Certainly flawed people in many ways, but accepted as leaders – those that others would choose to follow.

It seems, however, that just referring to someone as a leader is no longer adequate. We have adulterated the term so badly that it must always be linked to a further adjective. There are no longer leaders standing alone. We now refer to true leaders, genuine leaders, real leaders, inspirational leaders, servant leaders, transformational leaders, charismatic leaders, transactional leaders, autocratic leaders, and (the apparent millennial favorite) authentic leaders. To distinguish them all from what? Leaders? Why can’t leaders just be leaders? One reason for writing Sustained Leadership WBS was to attempt to bring leadership, in its pure unadulterated form, back into the regular lexicon. No adjectives, no modifiers, no superlatives, no other words to “explain” what leadership is.

“But wait!” you might say. “You DID add a modifier.” Well, yes and no. The use of “sustained” is in no way intended to enhance what leadership is. It is merely indicative of a goal that leadership, in its pure form, might be sustainable across many situations and over longer periods of time without a fatal flaw of the leader arising and derailing that leader’s leadership journey.

Let’s resolve that leadership is leadership and a leader is a leader. There should be no gradations of distinguishers among leaders. You either are one, or you are not. Certainly you are pursuing the continuous learning of a leader, and the hard work to make yourself a better you. A leader recognizes that they are not perfect and are flawed in some (often many) ways, but they have conducted a thorough and honest self-assessment and are working hard to make those improvements in themselves. We are all at different points in our leadership journey. So long as you are pursuing that journey with an honest heart and full application of your time, talent, and treasure, you are a leader. Without unnecessary modifiers.

With an extensive career in government contracting, Tom has found many examples, both good and bad, of leadership. These posts are based on his latest book, Sustained Leadership WBS, published by Morgan James. Tom is available to speak to your team on the importance of developing sustained leaders.


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