The Leadership Question: Who is a Leader? Or What is Leadership?


We just concluded one of executive managerial skill program: the cluster on Leadership. Our Advance leadership Program. The focus of this program is to help executives build the skill to develop future leaders from among the pool of subordinates around them. We encourage Leaders especially corporate leaders to focus on building enduring LEGACY in addition to a respectable REPUTATION.

Our case study was taken from one of the themes of the Harvard Leadership Roundtable of 2000/2001. The class agreed to focus on the issue of defining leadership. They wanted to know who is a true leader before trying to build skills required to become one.

One of our invited lecturer Dr Ik Muo actually ignited the passion of finding a common ground for grouping leaders. He produced a list of leaders and asked the group to find anything common to all.

In his presentation, Ik Mou quoted Bernard (1948) “Leadership has been a subject of an extraordinary amount of dogmatically stated nonsense”. Here is Ik’s list of leaders made of strange bedfellows as Jesus Christ, Hitler, Henry Ford and Isaac Newton, Idi Amin, Mother Theresa, Obama, and Otunba Gani Adams.

Dr IK Mou posited that there are no agreements about who or what a leader is, what constitute good leadership, the qualities of a good leader, whether leaders are born or made, whether great men cause great times or great times cause great men or even the apparently simple matter of how to study leadership! This is the big contradiction of leadership.

The Quality Approach:

Adopting the quality approach, we agreed that leadership can also be at 3 different levels.

  1. Expected Leadership:

    In Expected Quality, there are certain quality indicators you expect to find what you are producing or selling. When I buy a new car I expect it to have things like Jack, spare tyres, and the engine producing the standard sound expected of a new engine. When all these are present I do not get excited because they are expected to be there but if any is missing I will react negatively because they have not met the expected standard. So in Leadership, we do have Expected Leaders who are expected to have the various attributes associated with being a good leader. Basically, they must lead, take decisions, care for the rest of us etc. If we now have a leader that cannot deliver this basic leadership standard, we will complain and see such as failed leadership. We profile past Nigerian leaders to see who fit into this example. General Gowon, Shehu Shagari, Goodluck Jonathan just a few. You can decide whether they met the standard or they disappointed us.

  2. The Demanded Leadership:

    In the Demanded Quality standard you expect to get exactly what you demanded. If I want a red car don’t sell me a black car even if you think it is better. Give me what I want. So we find ourselves in situations when we demand a particular type of leader or leadership style or approach. The recent example here is President Buhari. He promised to fight corruption we all want corruption dead, he said he will defeat Boko Haram: we want Boko Haram dead, etc. So there is already a demand for the leadership and we may not look so much in other areas. We want a discipline and frugal leader that is our demand. We are therefore under a dispensation of a demanded leadership. We wait to see!

  3. Exciting Leadership:

    Again in a quality sphere, an Exciting Quality is that which is beyond our expectation. We did not imagine it so it is not expected, we did not specify it so it is not demanded. If we receive such out of this world quality standard we say it is exciting. This is because it gets us excited. So Exciting Leadership will be such a situation when a leader provides leadership beyond the expected and demanded and just “whao” us all. We looked and searched and we are still searching if we could classify any of our leaders in Nigeria as Exciting Leader.
    This looks like a refreshing approach but does it help in defining leadership or is it like the situational leadership approach?

The Role of Context

We looked deeper into the issue of context, guided by the Harvard Roundtable discussions, in leadership discussion. One issue was whether a fit between the characteristics of the individual leader and the specific situation is required in order to attain positive leadership outcomes. British Prime Minister Winston Churchill, for example, demonstrated remarkable success during a time of international crisis (World War II) that required inspirational leadership to mobilise broad-based action. By contrast, he produced only mediocre results earlier in his career when domestic issues largely demanded the ability to negotiate among conflicting political interests. The example of Churchill suggests, first, that good leadership requires the capacity to diagnose the demands and problems of the particular situation, and second, that the ability to act in accordance with the structural elements that become apparent in this diagnosis is crucial. The issue of “fit” between leader and situation prompted a question about whether leadership varies across the different sectors of society and the diverse professions and thus requires each Harvard faculty member to teach roles and tasks unique to its particular discipline. This question elicited the obvious counter-question: Aren’t there leadership characteristics that transcend context and should be taught to all students?

Most of the participants agreed with this reality from the roundtable.

What is our position in the Managerial School of Excellence?

We adopt the quality approach and it fits into the contextual approach to leadership. All situations will not require the same leadership approach or personality. The world is too complex to have a perfect leader fitting into all situations. This might make leaders very boring and exciting at extreme ends of the curve.

Leaders should, therefore, be judged by their performances i.e. fit for purpose. We believe leadership development focus should be on skills that help to appreciate the circumstances and expectation of the followers. This may be the core skills. Then the other leadership skills to lead well within such circumstances (context) will be identified and developed. This is the only way leaders will not be doing the wrong things well and be judged as not performing.

This led us to identify what exactly the leaders do even with the leadership qualities and skills?.

They lead change (Change Management), they build future leaders: Mentoring, Coaching etc, manage succession, they mobilise and motivate all around a common vision. These form the content of our Advanced Leadership Program.

Why not join us in the next program and contribute to the debate while becoming better enlightened about leadership as a role and how you grow as a leader.

For more information about MSE training, see the MSE Program page.