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The Essentials of Leadership – Part 1

July 23, 2015

Some believe that leadership is intangible. It cannot be learned. You either have it or you don’t. You’re either born with it or you’re not. I don’t subscribe to this point of view. In the trenches day to day where leadership is needed and expressed there are features of leadership which can be analysed, articulated, and coached.

One caveat before I continue: If leadership is dependent on charisma, what many people believe is a gift or power of indefinable origin, what happens when the charismatic leader is having a bad day, or week or month? What happens should the gift of charisma disappear, which it does and more often than is thought and the leader is left with nothing to rely on?

Leadership is too important to leave on such precarious ground.

So with that said, what are the features of leadership that can be understood and made clear and coherent, and serve as the conscious frame of a leader’s self-knowledge; a set of beliefs, traits, and skills he or she can rely on when needed?

In Community

Leadership is not a solitary event. In the West we revere the idea of the “individual,” a person who by his or her own doing attains the heights of prominence. But we often forget that the leader can only lead in community. This is more than just having followers. It’s a deep understanding that leaders pull together disparate elements---people, ideas, material--- and co-operatively shape them into a coherent, functioning, and directed whole. That cannot be accomplished in isolation.

Leaders are only leaders within the community in which they live and lead. They confer with those around them. They must understand and attend to the dynamics of their community. Not just the individuals within that community but to the relations between them and how their relations change and evolve over time creating the identity and effective functioning of the group.

A leader must know that he or she is leading others by presenting ideas and/or directions and then remaining aware that those following will blend what they hear with their own interpretations. So leaders cannot assume they have been heard in the way they want to be without testing the community to find out how what listeners heard is in alignment with what the leader said.

A leader is only as good or great as the community being led. This does not apply to dictators or political manipulators for whom the idea of leadership is irrelevant.

One of the essential features of a leader is his or her sensitivity to the shifting dynamics of the group that result in achieving a desired outcome. Otherwise chaos is sure to occur.

Emergent in Situation

To put this simply, if there is no need for leadership then leaders will not arise. It’s the situation that not only demands the presence of a leader but also how that leader will step up and take charge.

In 1940, during World War II, after a merely checkered political and military career, Winston Churchill emerged in England to become the Prime Minister. He inspired the English to endure the Nazi attacks and defend their homeland. He brought a forcefulness of command to his community as he painted a vision of ultimate victory. It was as though he brought the future to the present and opened that triumphant space for his countrymen to embrace and populate with their resilience, resolve, and spiritual determination. Then in 1945, as the war ended, he lost the election and was replaced as Prime Minister. The situation had changed and his style of leadership was no longer need.

A brilliant leader will recognize the limits of his or her tenure and will continue in leadership only by remaining sensitive to and aware of his or her personal strengths and weaknesses and align with the changing needs of the time. Such a leader will adapt and learn in order to remain in leadership. But the question is put---does the situation still require leadership or has it become an issue of personal desire?

Someone who does not adapt to the situation but insists on his or her own way is not a leader but an autocrat, a dictator, perhaps a tyrant.

Want vs Is

History books are filled with the stories of so-called leaders who rose up due to their personal ambitions. In every case they ended badly. Why? Because they abused the situation they found themselves in. Rather than serving the need and the community they turned the circumstances to their individual advantage. They were egotistically driven and eventually overwhelmed. Why? They could not succeed alone.

Hitler rallied his countrymen and women to follow his vision but not for their sake. He was driven by his fantasy of an uber race and the Thousand Year Reich. At the outset he relied on charisma, but after successive defeats, his charisma had abandoned him and he turned to an ever deepening paranoia and delusion until the end. His distorted psyche had always been there but covered over until it could no longer be contained. At the last moment he committed suicide, the final statement of what had been a profoundly self-destructive personality, one that brought destruction to the world.


A leader emerges to serve his or her community because the situation requires it. He or she is the right person at the right time to accomplish what needs to be done. Once the situation changes his or her continued leadership will depend on the ability to recognize the newly developing need and adapt to the situation, inspiring his community to follow.

Jim Sniechowski, PhD

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