The Dance of Leadership

The Dance of Leadership

Leadership is a slippery concept. The more that I study it, the more slippery it seems.

A couple of years ago, I was in a meeting of the Institute for Women in Leadership, debating the definition of leadership.  In discussing who we thought of when we thought of leaders, one young woman mentioned her mother as a role model for leadership.

At the time, I dismissed that comment as the result of the popular trend to “democratize leadership”, that is everyone can be a leader, and leadership is everywhere and in everything. Now I think I was wrong about that judgement.

The more I read about leadership, the more I become convinced that the reason it is so hard to define leadership, is that we all have a personal implicit theory of what leadership is.  And that theory is influenced by culture, situation, organizational context and personal experience. How we experience leadership contributes to how we define leadership.

Why does the experience of leadership vary between people so much?  We all come to leadership with different experiences. So we have different expectations, beliefs and values.  Every relationship between leaders and followers differs based on their relationships.  Leadership is essentially a social behaviour.

Trying to define leadership as a behaviour or a set of traits of a leader is essentially doomed to failure.

Rather, leadership is an exchange between leaders and followers. The big question is how does this exchange work?  Is there really a big difference between leaders and followers?  I’m not yet convinced that there is, rather, leaders and followers seem to do a dance, in order to have their needs met, they attempt to meet the needs of others. It’s almost as if we have a set of unstated expectations and want the other to read our minds, while we attempt to read theirs.

What are your expectations of your followers, and of those who lead you? It is worthwhile to think about these unstated assumptions, as they might highlight weaknesses in the leadership dynamic in your organization.  How can one lead, if you don’t know what those being led need?


Categories: Leadership

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4 replies »

  1. Wow. Very thought provoking. Thank you Colleen. I just did 2 days of leadership training for work. I will fwd your article to the trainer- I think she will greatly appreciate and enjoy your observationsm lisa

    • Thanks for the vote of confidence. I’d love to hear your perspective on your recent training session. I’ve been doing the literature review for my upcoming application to PhD programs, so I’m getting all philosophical. So I need you to bring me back down to earth.


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