Ideas

The Obligation of Leadership

A few weeks ago I was in a meeting about leadership. (Ah, the joys of academia — the luxury of talking for two hours about leadership).  One of the comments was that leadership is an obligation. For some reason, this really got my back up.  My response was downright visceral. And, until today, I couldn’t figure out why.

In the course of a discussion over coffee at my favourite Starbucks (I should really pay them rent), one of my new friends asked me if leadership is innate or if it is learned. The answer is that it is a bit of both. Research tells us that leadership is related to personality traits such as openness and extraversion.  So some of us are more likely predisposed to taking on leadership roles.  However, we can also learn, through experience, how to become a better leader.  The more we practice leadership, the more effective we can become.

But leadership is also linked to cognitive intelligence, emotional intelligence and social intelligence. These emotional management skills have been shown to be very important in our perceptions of leadership effectiveness. The ability to manage the socio-emotional relationships in a group has been shown to be important in groups.  Some of us have better skills than others in relationship management.  Here too, the research tells us that we can improve our emotional intelligence. 

What the science tells us is that leadership requires a multi-faceted set of skills.  And that not all of us have that set of skills. And some of us are motivated to develop our leadership skills, while others are not.  Research shows, if anything, a sense of obligation, actually reduces our intrinsic motivation. What motivates us to want to lead? I don’t know the answer. But I think it might have something to do with the idea that there is some intrinsic satisfaction to leading a group of people to accomplish something that has meaning.  Powerful leadership is about really caring about something and seeing that it has greater meaning than the next quarter’s profits. Maybe I’m personalizing this too much, but I just can’t bring myself to care about something that is just about obligation. I need that fire, that passion, before I can lead.

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2 replies »

  1. Re The Obligations of Leadership:

    Okay, let’s say there are three kinds of leadership:

    Spontaneous/Accidental

    Intentional / Ambituous

    Visionary / Spritual

    ……………………………………………………………

    Accidental Leadership refers to a response to an emergency or a vacuum of direction.

    A character perhaps not thought of as a leader steps up to a situation where action and leadership IS an obligation.

    The motivation is extrinsic-basic survival.

    And underscored by Maslow’s safety and physiological needs at the bottom of his pyramid.

    (Nelson Mandela)
    ……………………………………………………………..

    The pursuit of Leadership based on Ambition and Ego moves up Maslow’s Pyramid to “Esteem” where motivation is still driven by Extrinsic and Immediate Rewards.
    That is; The trappings ,power and accompanying lifestyle of leadership.

    The unrelenting Gamemanship involved in preserving power becomes an obligation for the leader often to the detriment of the original vision if there was one besides the accumulation of resources.

    (Stephen Harper…Bernie Madoff)

    ………………………………………………………..

    Visionary Leadership reflects the
    “Self-actualization-the top of Maslow’s Pyramid.

    A sense of duty,destiny, betterment of the human condition.. is an intrinsic motivator….
    on paper.

    With varying results The Dalai Lama,
    Mahatma Gandi…and Hitler have all felt at various times a compulsion to raise the bar for their respective followers.

    And their visions become a personal obligation for themselves and their followers.
    “Results can be determined by their effort.”
    …………………………………………………………..

    So in fact leadership does require a culture of obligatory behaviour to be effective.

    Having said that as conditions change so do the obligations.

    Quoting John Ralston Saul on CBC this week (during a program about leadership)
    When asked what defined a true leader?

    He responded …

    “The ability to respond to the times.”

    scott w.

    • Okay, so Scott might be right. An intrinsic sense of obligation probably is an important ingredient for leadership. I think the idea that an external obligation to lead that is forced rather than chosen is what I reacted to so strongly.

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