The Overnight HR Leader

Kevin Burns
Posted: 07/14/2009

The Global Leadership Forecast 2008/09 researched 12,208 business executives and 1,493 human resource professionals across 76 countries. Of the executives surveyed, 75 percent identified improving their leadership talent as their number one priority for organizational success. But the vast majority of those same human resources respondents have no idea of what exactly leadership is.

It is astounding that so many people, when asked to define leadership, can have so many varying answers. In fact, there are 350,000 books on Amazon with "Leadership" in the title. That's 350,000 opinions on what leadership is. Confused yet?

What has become clear is that there is no universally accepted definition of leadership because leadership is not tangible. It is not something you can hold in your hand. Corporate North America needs to stop thinking that leadership is something that can be attained in a day-long course or by reading a book. Without addressing context, deep-seated opinions, beliefs and values, no one is ever going to become a leader.

Leadership is an attitude and a state of mind. It is not the accomplishment of a series of tasks. It is not a passing grade at some course. It is not a title. It is not something you achieve. It is a way you exist. It is how you carry yourself. It is how you choose to walk the Earth.

The waters have been muddied in recent years by equating leadership with holding a top position in an organization. Leadership is not a position. Leadership is not something you do. But in the desperation that Corporate North America has to be number one, to be the best and to be the mightiest, a vacuum has been created and is now being filled with 350,000 opinions on what leadership is. In this vacuum, Corporate America has become so desperate for real leaders to follow, it has become self-anointing. And by becoming self-anointing, businesses have now sprung up promising to turn losers into leaders—for a price. This is exactly where human resources need to take heed.

If you, as a human resources professional, can not define leadership for yourself, how in the world can you determine which so-called "leadership" experts are best for your organization? The truth is you can't. Since there are as many varying opinions on what leadership is, it is impossible to discern one from the other. The truth—and this is the scary part—is that the vast majority of leadership courses are really nothing more than re-branded management courses. Substitute the word leadership for management and the schools and consultants have another course offering. But it is not a leadership course. It is a management course. Leadership is an attitude. Management is a position. Parenting is an attitude. Parent is a position. Therefore, parenting is more closely related to leadership than management is. Do you see the distinction? Leadership is not a title on a business card. Leadership is an attitude that might be used in management or being a parent, but it is not a prerequisite.

Any course that does not challenge long-held attitudes, opinions, beliefs, ethics, personal values, contexts or standards of empathy and compassion can not be considered a leadership course. Leadership is the attitude you take into every interaction, choice and decision not just at work but at home, in your church, in your community, in traffic, in line at Starbucks. Every fiber of your being is a tell-tale sign of your leadership.

The problem with the influx of leadership consultants, schools and "experts" is that they are the result of Corporate America's fixation with the "instant leader." Books such as John Maxwell's 21 Irrefutable Laws of Leadership are fundamentally wrong. Maxwell's book teaches some new-age North American leadership culture as though if you simply do all of the 21 things in his book, you too can become a leader. That's pure bunk. Leadership can be learned, but not by simply following 21 laws. Maxwell has made a promise that if you follow the "laws" (and don't question them—remember they're irrefutable) in his book, you can become a leader. That is simply not true. You will never get people to follow you by simply checking off a list of traits. That definition of leadership is too cerebral.

The new leadership models are simply pandering to the masses in the same way "Get Rich Quick" schemes pop up when times are tough or in the same way a diet pill can slim down in two-weeks what took years to get fat. Corporate America has no patience and doesn’t want to do the hard work involved in becoming a true, authentic leader. It wants the quick-fix, instant-gratification, instant-leader pill and "make it snappy because I’ve got other things to do."

A leader is not something you become in exchange for money. I repeat: A leader is not something you become in exchange for money. What is fundamentally wrong with Corporate North America is that there is a mistaken belief that you can have anything you want if you have the money to do it. And that includes being a leader. Money is not leadership. Power is not leadership. Fame is not leadership.

A parent is as much a leader as a CEO. The office whiner is as much a leader as his supervisor if people are following. The first person to loot a store during a riot is a leader if others follow. Osama Bin Laden is as much a leader as any head of state. Leadership is not exclusive to the workplace. In fact, leadership has nothing to do with work. Leadership is a character trait, a state of mind, an attitude. How can you define an attitude?

People follow people they want to follow. There is no explanation for that. People who are considered natural leaders are people that others wish to emulate. The trick, however, is in following the person and not their results (i.e. money, power, fame). The Dalai Llama is a far better example of authentic leadership than Donald Trump. People follow Trump for his power and money when the world would be a different place if they'd follow the Dalai Llama. But both are considered leaders.

What defines a leader? If Bin Laden and the Dalai Llama can both be considered leaders, then it is not a list of traits that form their make-up. It is the attitude they possess that causes others to follow them, to listen when they speak and to change the world for the better or worse. How can someone train your people to have a leadership attitude in a day when natural leaders consider themselves "works in progress"? As a human resources professional, don't be duped into thinking that you can simply throw a leadership course at your people and all will be well.

Stop thinking and believing that leadership and management are one in the same. Stop espousing that you must achieve a specific set of criteria to be considered a leader. Stop muddying the waters of an obviously clear distinction. You're showing that you really have no idea of the difference between leadership and management and you're starting to annoy the leaders who do. A human resources professional had better be clear on the distinction.

Kevin Burns
Posted: 07/14/2009

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