Neil McLennan: Leadership - it is everywhere but, what really is it?!

Neil McLennan

“Leadership crisis”, Leadership race”, “leadership needed.” It is everywhere. From Donald Trump to Phillip Green, from Nicola Sturgeon to Michelle Mone OBE from Corbyn to Clinton (both the card company and the other ones) . Everyone has an opinion on them. We talk about them incessantly-at home, either complaining about leaders or marvelling in their vision and achievements.

Leadership issues are shared widely on professional social networking sites with quotes from Richard Branson and Steve Jobs being “liked” and recirculated endlessly. Interestingly, in the latter case apparently those working for him were scared to go past his office. Somewhat different from the image created by the quotes and sharp images alongside them.

And so- for all our fascination- what is it? In fact, does it even exist? Defining leadership has not been easy. As we can see, everyone has a view on it. However, those views are very different between people and situations.

If we look to the Oxford online dictionary it defines it as a leader is 1The person who leads or commands a group, organization, or country. Meanwhile, the act of leadership is defined as “The action of leading a group of people or an organization, or the ability to do this:”

Simples isn’t it?! Well no. Because there are many other issues that come into play. In business, in politics, in life leadership has become the panacea to society’s ills. That in itself has caused problems. The desire for easy solutions and the desire to “hero worship” has in part contributed to this however we must understand where leadership fits into our organisations. Whilst, it is for certain that many things happen, improve and or get worse as a result of leadership- it in itself is not the sole contributor to those actions. Too think this was the case is to ignore the complexity of organisations, society and individual people.

That said, do not be despondent. Leaders are everywhere and everyone has leadership inside them. Many debates argue as to whether they are born or develop. For the most part these are academic. Leadership is after all a practical act. Of course everyone has the capacity to undertake the act and everyone has the ability to develop skills associated with taking on the act of leadership.

How often do we go into meetings and nothing is progressed? Indeed nothing is on the table. However often does someone put something on the table and that starts to become the plan, or at least something emanating from it. Is that not leadership?; someone who takes the risk, actually does something and thereafter people follow the lead. In many senses it is not dissimilar to entrepreneurialism and the traits of an entrepreneur.

This latter point raises a key point. Leaders by their nature need followers. How they get them exposes another area to consider. For example, the definition has implicit in it control – after all “commanding” is not always done by permissions. However, there is a clear distinction to be made between leadership and management in this case. Many will describe themselves as leaders within organisations. However, colleagues will attest that their leadership skills are not evident nor the act of leadership. In fact they are managing or administrating. Particularly when they are following rigidly designed rules for what to do in every potential circumstance the organisation, department or team find themselves in. Leadership rarely features. What is more, they are often not fully fledged leaders within those structures. Whilst they may have some management influence, there are managers above them and managers above them and so the ability to fully lead is hamstrung by the organisation itself and its culture.

The culture of leadership is perhaps a useful end point for us to finish an initial evaluation of the role and act. For leaders can and do influence the culture within businesses and organisations. The array of styles a leader can use and deploy is vast MacBeth (2013) described the issue as being akin to the leadership alphabet soup. Heroic, charismatic, moral, principled, strategic, values based, transformational, invitational, distributed- you name it, there is a verb and description for any eventuality. Many others have taken similar approaches. For example Ledingham (2012) looks at different alternate ways of describing leadership to better understand styles and roles:- the villager, the sculptor, the scientist, the Gardener, the parent and the list goes on. All are of interest to explore however do they help us in the act itself?

One thing is for sure- we cannot be all things to all men despite the plea of organisations to do so. And so, as long as the demand from the top and from followers continues, there will be a need for leaders for a long time to come. Furthermore there will be a need for those very leaders to develop other leaders to keep the wheels of industry turning.

A final reflection and addition to the lists above. The leader writes and tells the story of the organisation. Blank pages are filled with something that people will engage with, follow, read, regurgitate and feel inspired by. With the pages filled, the leader continues to tell the story, championing the causes and holding firm to initial intent through choppy waters. My addition to the endless lists for this particular piece- the narrative leader. That being the case, what is your story? And is it worth telling?


What does leadership look , sound and feel like in your organisation?
Are leaders really leaders? Are they empowered or are they really managing and administrating?
What acts of leadership do you undertake?
What type of leader are you / do you wish to be?
Further reading:

John MacBeth (2013) The Alphabet Soup of Leadership –

Don Leddingham (2012)

Neil McLennan is Director of Leadership Programmes at the University of Aberdeen. The MSc Leadership in Profession Contexts programme caters for middle level leaders through to Headteachers and senior officers.