Why it is Leadership that Matters, Not the Leader

In her wide-ranging nonfiction classic, Summer on the Lakes, Margaret Fuller, the first American female war correspondent, pondered what makes a truly great leader:

“This country… needs… no thin Idealist, no coarse Realist, but a man whose eye reads the heavens, while his feet step firmly on the ground, and his hands are strong and dexterous for the use of human implements… a man of universal sympathies, but self-possessed; a man who knows the region of emotion, though he is not its slave; a man to whom this world is no mere spectacle or fleeting shadow, but a great, solemn game, to be played with good heed, for its stakes are of eternal value…”

This is heady, and deep. It’s not the pithy, biting witticism of a sharp orator like Margaret Thatcher, Martin Luther King Jr. or John F. Kennedy. It’s also not how I would usually open an article like this, for the same reason. This passage is a lot to take in, and a lot to mull over. But that’s exactly the point.

A great leader must be many great things, a great number of which can be described in much more contracted language:





And so on.

But if these were enough, we wouldn’t still be having the constant, ever-evolving conversations crucial to the pursuit of great leadership. So sometimes, something as enormous and complicated as Ms. Fuller’s understanding of a leader is necessary.

The real point of my fixation on this definition of great leadership, though, is its insistence on the importance of a leader’s character. Not only the insistence that character is crucial unto itself, but for the deep dive into just how many distinct elements a strong character is composed of. Everything from practical considerations like strength and dexterity to the balance of emotional openness and self-control make up the ideal leader in Fuller’s mind, and indeed in my own.

The reason I value this quote so much is that it reinforces a distinction I’ve noticed in my own experience with leadership over many years, both in the RAAF as a leader myself, and through working with leaders in the education and business sectors: the difference between leader development and leadership development.

Leader development most commonly takes a form we can all very easily recognise. It’s the formal, paid workshops, often in a different city, that a manager or CEO will be flown to. It’s the short courses you add to your resume or LinkedIn profile, or the personal business coaches that play a supposedly crucial role in the biographies of the biggest entrepreneurs in our culture. It’s all the training camp-equivalents that are apparently the education necessary for anyone who is serious about being a leader.

None of these, I must stress, are bad, at least by definition. A well-constructed workshop or seminar, at the right time, can give a leader the information or the confidence to take on the difficult role of the CEO at a new company, or a business falling on tough times. I am a fierce believer in the value of education at all levels, and this of course includes these top-level formal training opportunities. To refer again to a shorter, pithier leadership quote from JFK, “Leadership and learning are indispensable to one another.”

What concerns me instead, is that leader development is widely regarded as the be-all and end-all of leadership development, when in fact is just one facet of the much larger, much more effective pursuit of leadership development. And while it is indeed a necessary component, it can in fact cause adverse effects if it is treated as the only necessary component.

For one thing, a myopic focus on leader development separates the leader from the rest of an organisation. When the CEO is away from the business to pursue individual training, it’s not unreasonable that the rest of the employees will, over time, feel left behind. In a literal sense, this is simply a fact. If a leader spends too much time away from the business itself, they are quite literally stepping outside of their own culture, searching for more, or better, as though leading a company in itself is not a valuable way to improve as a leader.

Likewise, the accolades, certificates and titles that a leader collects on their external pursuits only make this separation from the rest of the organisation permanent. The culture becomes one in which these extracurriculars become a prerequisite for leadership: a culture that values and even requires an extra level of effort for leadership can be an incredibly powerful one, but it must equally recognise that these more formal (and usually expensive) efforts aren’t as available to leaders within the organisation as they are to somebody like a CEO, for example.

Finally, the insistence on leader development and leader development alone, makes leadership a job and not a culture at all. It turns a leader from a person who exhibits great leadership into a person with a particular title, which excludes anyone else from taking the responsibility of leadership that is necessary to a productive culture.

Instead of valuing “a man whose eye reads the heavens, while his feet step firmly on the ground,” it values a CEO with an MBA and a long list of completed training courses with the most expensive consultants. Ideally, the leader of a productive organisation will be both, with equal weight.

That’s where leadership development comes in.

Leadership development is an organisation-wide pursuit. It recognises that every member of an institution must be a leader in their own role, no matter what that role is on paper. It also recognises, crucially, that the most effective leadership training takes place internally. This means it takes place within the individual, but also within the organisation. It’s wonderful for a leader to occasionally step outside of their organisation to regain a fresh perspective, or to learn from someone in an entirely different domain, but the ultimate goal is to improve the organisation, and the best way to do that is to literally improve the organisation.

The author Scott H. Young explains why this deceptively simple approach is so important:

“There’s an enormous literature about the narrowness of acquired skills. Learn to do X, and then switch to doing Y, and you often take a huge performance hit even if X and Y are superficially similar.

This applies most obviously to formal education. In countless studies, students are found to not be able to perform on tasks that their classes should have prepared them for. Studying economics then not being able to do better on questions of economic reasoning. Taking one psychology class and not having it help when taking a later one. Physics students failing to solve problems that differ slightly from those taught in class.”

Being a leader is the best, and perhaps the only way to become a better leader. And at its very core, being a productive leader is about being a productive person. It’s about being all of those difficult, sometimes nebulous things that Margaret Fuller writes about.

Every person in an organisation needs to be a leader, and so the culture of an organisation needs to foster productive, effective leadership from the inside out. Leadership is the capability, actions and behaviour of a person or persons to inspire other people to be leaders themselves. While external leader development may assist in this pursuit, by its very definition it requires significantly more time spent with those other people than with outside forces. The only truly useful measures of an effective leader will come from the organisation itself. How that leader is perceived by their team and how productive the organisation actually is (by whatever measure is most applicable to a particular business), and how many leaders are born of the one at the top of the company are the only legitimate measures of effective leadership. The methods by which you achieve this state are many, and while they can most certainly (and usually should) include formal education and training, the day-to-day, internal work is equally critical.

Thankfully, leadership development inherently breeds leader development as a byproduct. When a leader works to become “a [person] to whom this world is no mere spectacle or fleeting shadow, but a great, solemn game, to be played with good heed, for its stakes are of eternal value,” that leader only becomes more receptive to the kind of formal leader development that would do no good for someone working from the outside in.

Therefore, it’s in every organisation’s best interest to preference leadership development above leader development in any case. You will develop as a leader by developing your leadership, and you will develop your leaders by developing their leadership.  


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