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What if action defined leadership?

16 August 2023

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Rather than define leadership either as a position of authority or a set of personal characteristics, what if we defined it as action? An article in Administration & Society explores this question and contends it is a specific type of action which takes place in a sphere of ambiguity and uncertainty. This excludes leadership behaviours whose predominant interest is managing things as they are.

Action defines leadership

The author believes that it is a great deal more useful for our understanding of leadership to define it as an activity. Action defines leadership in the sense that action of a certain kind is what distinguishes leadership from other types of activities.

When action takes centre stage, leadership ceases to be the exclusive realm of extraordinary people. Regardless of one’s role or position, action is what makes a person a leader – a president and a clerk can both lead. Contrary to the still prevalent “leader-centred” approaches, it follows that what is unique and what calls for attention and portrayal is the action, not those who carry it out.

It is a specific kind of action

The article sees acts of leadership as thinking, creating or acting outside the boundaries of what is known and safe in order to serve the greater good. This view has several features:

  • Action is innovative. It is a new beginning. Through action, we seek to change the status quo. Action denotes the initiatives that interrupt and reshape the customary ways that people lead their lives in society.
  • Think, create, or act. The notion of action is not confined to deeds but embraces thinking and creating as well – the nature of leadership remains the same across all spheres of action. Although different contexts may call for different behaviours, this does not result in different types of leadership. Leadership is leadership is leadership: in science as well as in business, in education, in politics.
  • Outside the boundaries of what is known and safe. There is a difference between readjusting the parts of a wagon to make it more efficient, and the invention of the steam locomotive. It is the difference between leadership and management with the role of leadership being to produce change. There is a parallel with the concept of adaptive leadership which rests on the understanding that leadership is concerned with the non-routine, strategic challenges in a society.
  • To serve the greater good. Leadership is not a value-free concept. Breaking through the commonly accepted and reaching into the unknown is the mark of an act of leadership, regardless of where it transpires, provided that it aims at serving a greater good. The underling motivation of acts of leadership is to contribute to the lives of others.

Moving beyond success to define leadership

Is “leadership” synonymous with successful conduct? The idea of leadership has traditionally been indistinguishable from power, influence, and success. The field of leadership research primarily focuses on effectiveness. Set upon a pedestal, life histories of those who exerted significant influence on a significant number of individuals have become the privileged source of insights and hypotheses regarding the emergence of leadership and its influence.

Given the nature of acts of leadership, they are more likely to miss their targets than to achieve intended results. If our test of leadership is about results, we implicitly harbour a preference for safer, more reasonable ambitions. Leadership’s association with success also assumes that people can control what is essentially uncontrollable.

The bottom line

Leadership as action, its scope and duration may vary, but its logic remains the same: challenging conventional wisdom and reaching into the unknown in order to serve the greater good. The emphasis on action, rather than on the actor, takes us away from prevalent leader-centred approaches.

The stress on action that takes place outside the boundaries of what is known and safe, rules out behaviours whose predominant interest is to manage things as they are. Given the ambiguity and uncertainty that often accompany these undertakings, effectiveness and success can no longer serve as the underlying rationale for exercising leadership. “Right action” cannot guarantee desired outcomes.

Want to read more? 

What if action defined leadership? – David Dery, Administration & Society, September 2023

The article is available via individual or institutional access through a library service such as a university library, state library or government library.

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Published Date: 16 August 2023