By Seth Hufford
The ability to think beyond our day-to-day and gain perspective on the context in which we operate is an empowering cerebral exercise – and something that is uniquely human. So when engaged in meaning of life conversations with family and friends, I find that the subject often turns to the era of human history that we are currently living through. How will historians describe this time? It will be recorded (in digital format, of course) that in one generation we have seen a shift from an industrial to an information age. This rapid change has had and continues to have a tremendous impact on lives and on our society.
With the shift from industry to information, the world is increasingly complex and connected; the options are endless. Putting my two-year-old son to bed the other night, I thought about the options my wife and I had to fill the evening with…and how much that had changed since we were his age. Back then, our own parents may have put a record on the turntable, watched a drama on one of the three TV networks, or curled up with a book or the evening newspaper. Now, my wife and I can “virtually” go anywhere in the world from the comfort of our home. We can access millions of digital songs online, watch any type of program on hundreds of cable channels – whether live, from the DVR, or on-demand, or choose to access instant news and information from thousands of sources around the globe. The choices are dizzying…and so is much of our world. To function in this age, we need to be prepared to make sense of complexity and to manage change.
So the question is then not if or when we need to develop and practice new approaches to operating in today’s world, but rather how we should go about doing it. This “how” question can, at least in part, be answered by a change in how we define leadership. We often still hold on to an industrial model of leadership – the person at the top of the organization or society gets things done and everyone else follows – that does not work in today’s day and age. It is time to let go of the old and begin using a new definition for leadership that reflects the reality of the information age.
One constant in my experience of running leadership development programs over the past decade was the wide variation among participants about a consistent definition of “leadership”. A room filled with ambitious professionals, all of whom considering themselves to be “leaders”, resulted in a different understanding of leadership from each and every person. It was only after reading Ron Heifetz’s book, Leadership Without Easy Answers, that I gained some much needed insight.
Heifetz separates the term “leadership” from the term “authority”. He refers to authority as providing protection, direction, and order. Authority often comes from the position or role that you have – formal authority (such as the President, a mother, a police officer), but it can also be informal (think of the person in your office who everyone seeks out for the latest information – he or she may not have a high ranking title, but does have informal authority as a source of information). Leadership is then more about managing change – mobilizing people to tackle tough problems. By defining leadership as an activity, Heifetz allows leadership to originate from multiple positions in an organization or society.
Separating these two concepts of leadership and authority is a start to changing how we think about leadership in our era.
Gone are the days when we look to the “leader” at the top of the organization or society to provide the solutions to all of our problems. One only needs to look to the world of politics to see how people are still struggling to adjust their definition of leadership. How many times have you heard people say, if only we were able to get our candidate elected, things would be better. To my own regret, such sentiment amounts to no more than wishful thinking and only leads to disappointment – not to mention it absolves everyone from owning a piece of the problem. By contrast, the definition of leadership as an activity permits people at all levels to bring about change in a fast-paced world – not, as in this case, just the candidate running for office. Additionally, this is the reason that so many companies are investing in emerging leaders within their ranks – business knows it cannot fall behind in generating new solutions at all levels to the challenges it faces.
How is redefining leadership relevant in your day-to-day? If you are trying to solve all of the problems yourself and expecting people to follow you – in other words, being the industrial age leader – you are bound to fail. In the information era, you need to think about the resources around you – and how they can be used to address the challenges that you face. Realizing that you don’t need to have all the answers is a big relief – but it doesn’t make leadership any easier, it just changes your approach.
Continue your transition to the information age, by redefining leadership yourself. For one day, keep track of how many times you use the word leadership when you are actually referring to people in positions of authority. You will be surprised at how often you are using the word “leadership” when you are actually talking about the concept of “authority”. On another day, keep track of how many times your colleagues are interchanging “leadership” and “authority” as concepts. Finally, let these new definitions marinate for a couple of days and then rethink one or two new strategies for approaching a current problem – ones that don’t rely on the people in positions of authority to provide all of the solutions. Allow this new definition of leadership to assist you in managing change in today’s world.
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