Leading and mandating others to lead are activities that underpin the ways in which most human beings live. In general, leadership is something that attracts a great deal of conversation and debate, most of which concerns the qualities of people who are recognised as leaders. In the process, leadership becomes personalised—associated with individuals who can even become household names. However, while we discuss the strengths and weaknesses of the leaders we know—celebrating them, criticising them, and wondering where the next batch of great leaders is going to come from—we neglect a more fundamental conversation. That is, the conversation about leadership itself: what it is, how it contributes to our groups, organisations and communities, and how more people can be involved in it.
Energising Leadership suggests that the purpose of leadership is to help orchestrate the range of energies that people can bring to their lives and work—an idea that opens up many possibilities that are neglected when we think too narrowly about leadership.
The personalisation of leadership
Conversations about leaders have always been important to people, including the conversations that have taken place at great risk to the people involved. Some of the most treasured and recorded statements of humanity reflect enduring aspirations and hopes for what leaders can do for our organisations, communities and nations. We hope that leaders will excite us with their vision, inspire us with their own confidence to tackle things we fear, find clever ways to deal with our difficulties, and bind us together when our differences seem to be tearing us apart.
Now, outright disillusionment with leaders across the political and social spectrum—in corporations, public administration, religious groups and other organisations—is commonplace. This leads us to ask: Where can we find good leaders, and what does it take to educate them? Inevitably, as the world becomes more complex, and we become more aware of the unresolvable tensions that beset contemporary human life, our desire to find excellent individual leaders grows stronger, even as our faith in leaders in general diminishes. We redouble our efforts to find better leaders, identify their capacity for leadership earlier, actively develop their potential and accelerate their maturation. In some cases, despite the cynicism of their wider communities, organisations are prepared to reward their leaders on extraordinary scales and to entrust them with performance expectations that are totally unrealistic.
We have personalised leadership, associating it with individuals whose names and reputations, in some cases, survive long after their lives are over. Over the decades, in my own consulting work, I have noticed that as soon as people are asked what they think leadership is, they begin to talk about specific individuals and their qualities. Or, they start to criticise the shortcomings of leaders they have worked with themselves.
Scrutiny of leaders is vital; uncritical acceptance of what leaders do and how they behave would be as unhelpful to us as unremitting cynicism. However, conversations that simply personalise leadership can do us a disservice. They can distract us from a different, equally important conversation, the one that asks what leadership work actually is. This conversation is less common. Thirty years ago, in Leadership for the Twenty-first Century (1991), Joseph Rost commented that leadership is ‘anything one wants to say it is’. Arguably, not a lot has changed since then.
Arguably, too, a preoccupation with finding excellent leaders can have some other really unfortunate consequences. One is that the exceptional qualities sought in leaders can seem to put leadership not just beyond the aspiration of most people, but beyond their sense of accountability. It seems easier to wait for others to step up, to follow others instead of backing one’s own authority and responsibility to lead.
Leadership is a kind of work, not a kind of person
For all of these reasons, the time is ripe to focus on the work of leadership, not just the people who are leaders. So, what is the work of leadership? My response to that question is: The central purpose and focus of leadership work is to mobilise, focus and sustain human energies to get things done—things that matter to people, that they might struggle to tackle on their own.
When people practice leadership they are deliberately creating interpersonal and organisational environments that make it easier for people to connect and commit their energies to the goals of their groups, organisations or communities.
Human energies include the intellectual power that drives activities like diagnosing situations and designing business strategies. But they include much more: the physical, emotional, intuitive and spiritual energies that human beings bring to their lives and work. Energies are the powers that come from body, heart, mind, imagination, inspiration and belief.
Leadership work involves intentionally challenging, and trying to change, the things that block or waste precious human energies
If leaders can’t change these things, their work is to create the supports that bring out the best in people, whether leaders are present in person or not.
Leadership happens both in real time, when people are face to face, and at a distance, across physical, organisational, national and cultural boundaries. Leadership happens across time zones. It happens in response to local, ad hoc events and issues, and in strategic, proactive ways, across larger systems. It is the work of individuals and the collaborative work of teams.
The notion of energising leadership shines a light on real-time human encounters in groups and organisations, and on many aspects of organisational structures, systems and environments, by asking some fundamental questions:
- How do these encounters and organisational containers affect the range of energies that people bring?
- How do they affect the ways in which people focus their energy and connect it with the energy of others?
- What blocks, wastes, or diverts energy?
- What shuts energy down? What attracts it and releases it?
- What helps to replenish energy when things get hard?
- What helps to refocus energy?
Focusing on human energy opens up many practical opportunities for constructive leadership—opportunities that would otherwise be underestimated, underused or completely ignored
This way of thinking invites leaders to pay attention to the full spectrum of human energies and the ways they are engaged to achieve the goals of groups, organisations and communities. It means tuning in and noticing the many things that affect the commitment and effort of different people.
Leaders understand that they cannot leave this work to chance but they don’t assume that this is work that they must—or even should—tackle alone. Leadership work itself requires the energy and skill of many people, in a range of very different ways. If the great debates that have raged about leadership over the decades mean anything, they certainly suggest that leadership work must be adapted to the situation in which it occurs, and is as diverse as the circumstances in which human beings try to get things done.
Nita Cherry is Professor of Leadership at Swinburne University of Technology, Adjunct Professor at Charles Sturt University and Fellow at the Swinburne Leadership Institute.
Energising Leadership is the latest book from Nita Cherry. It is based on the idea that professional leaders make it easier for people to connect their energies to the goals of their groups, organisations and communities. Energising Leadership is a practical book for anyone wishing to develop and refine their leadership practice.