Leadership No Longer Means Leadership!

How the meaning of leadership is changing in the 21st Century

After years of reading, writing, and talking about leadership, I realized that the meaning of leadership is no longer the same thing as what we traditionally think of as leadership. It’s time to call it something else!

Traditional Leadership

From the literature, here are some characteristics traditionally associated with leadership:

  • Having followers
  • Making big decisions
  • Building a vision
  • Inspiring people to follow the strategy
  • Being in a leadership role
  • Leaving a legacy
  • The manager, supervisor, boss, or even the CEO
  • Being the hero

We even refer to top-level executives as being part of the leadership team.

Traditional Definition: Is it Leadership or Management?

Many think that the following is a good, straightforward leadership definition:

The art of getting things done through people

Actually, that’s Mary Parker Follett’s definition of management. No wonder some people struggle to explain how management and leadership differ!

The Meaning of Leadership is Changing

At the beginning of a John Maxwell’s video on the Five Levels of Leadership,¹ Maxwell says, “…and by the way, leadership is not a noun. It’s a verb. It’s action. It’s moving.” If you majored in English, you might not agree. How often do you hear, “I will leadership you!”

Seriously though, Maxwell’s point is that leadership is not a role. Rather, it’s a way of practicing your role. You can perform the tasks of your role with or without practicing leadership. That’s why experts like Simon Sinek argue that those at the top of an organization may or may not be practicing leadership and shouldn’t automatically be called a leader. In his Ted talk, Sinek says the following (9:58 into the talk):

Leadership is a choice. It is not a rank. I know many people at the senior-most levels of organizations who are absolutely not leaders. They are authorities, and we do what they say because they have authority over us, but we would not follow them. And I know many people who are at the bottoms of organizations who have no authority and they are absolutely leaders, and this is because they have chosen to look after the person to the left of them, and they have chosen to look after the person to the right of them. This is what a leader is.

Before Sinek’s time, Servant Leadership, the first revolutionary wave, rejects the traditional top-down thinking in which the executive equals leader and the subordinates equal followers. With servant leadership, followers no longer serve the leader, and the servant leader serves the subordinates.

Around the time of the servant leadership revolution, some experts started pondering how anyone, regardless of role, can practice leadership. Many people I know agree with this, but they still use traditional language to refer to those at the top as the leaders.

The New Leadership Principles

In my book, Nine Practices of 21st Century Leadership, I report the findings of my analysis of a selection of contemporary leadership authors. In that analysis, I identified seven principles of the new leadership:

  1. Believe in others
  2. Connect with others
  3. Put others first
  4. Give up control
  5. Encourage change
  6. Collaborate with others
  7. Develop leadership practices continuously

With each principle, I identified underlying beliefs (26 total) that are the foundation for how to practice leadership from any role. By reading the principles and beliefs, you’ll start to recognize how this new leadership differs from traditional thinking.

What should this New Leadership be called?

As long as we call the new leadership, leadership, we’ll still blend the new leadership with the traditional meaning. We need to call it something else.

Servant Leadership is a good start, and many may recognize that it differs from traditional thinking. But, we need something stronger that makes sense when you hear it.

Maybe someone will come up with the new leadership term soon!

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¹ Unfortunately, this video was removed from YouTube due to unauthorized publication from John Maxwell.

About the author

Gary is a Leadership Author, Researcher, Consultant, and Podcast Guest. His latest book, What the Heck Is Leadership and Why Should I Care?, is available in paperback, eBook, and audiobook. You can learn more about Gary and his other books at https://www.garyadepaul.com.

Gary is a speaker, author, researcher, and leadership futurist. https://www.garyadepaul.com

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