Over the last few weeks, I read with much interest a discussion among members of a particular LinkedIn group where they attempted to define the single most important attribute to leadership. For some participants, the most important trait was integrity; others felt that awareness was the key to effective leadership. As I perused through the various answers – and there were many good ones – it was clear that a consensus was unlikely to be reached over what characteristic is the most critical to the role of leading others.
Naturally, this wasn’t the only time where there’s been some challenge and debate surrounding the quantification of leadership. One only needs to look at when discussions are started over how to define leadership to notice how blurry the boundaries are in delineating this particular role. It doesn’t take long for such exercises to cause more confusion and debate over how we should view leadership than they do to help clarify the concept of being a leader.
The difficulty that seems to persist in defining or quantifying this particular function got me thinking about whether we should be looking at leadership as more of an art than a science. In other words, that we should view leadership as something that is understood more through the eye of the beholder, and how it’s perceived being very much dependent on the environment in which it’s presented.
Indeed, unlike science, art allows for a more subjective interpretation of ideas or concepts; that there’s no need for a singular, fixed answer or definition in order to understand it. As many artists say about their work, it’s not so much what they wanted you to see as it is what you choose to perceive within their construct.
From this vantage point, it would seem leadership is very much like an art form more than it is a science. And yet, I don’t think we can’t discount the role of science in leadership just yet.
After all, there are many scientific disciplines that have helped us to gain insights into what makes one individual a more effective leader than others. Thanks to discoveries in the fields of organizational psychology and neuroscience, as well such diverse disciplines as ecology and ornithology (see my pieces “Changing Our Behaviours – A Lesson From the Birds” and “Migrating Geese – A Lesson in Leadership and Collaboration”), we can gain a better understanding of what human traits or behaviours are best suited for leadership, and why they are of benefit to the organizations and teams these individuals lead. While science might not provide us with a clear definition of what leadership is, it has proved to be vital to not only improving how we perceive this function, but also how those who lead serve others through these roles.
So what then can we say about leadership, is it a science or does it reflect more a form of art? Maybe like most human functions, leadership is not something we can put into a nice little box and place on a shelf for easy reference and review. Instead, it would seem we’d be better off recognizing that like most human interactions, leadership is defined both by its complexities, as well as its simplicities, in how one guides others toward a common goal.
Now it’s your turn – is leadership something requiring more the precision and accuracy of science? Or is it more about the intangibles that art tends to focus on? What’s your experience – either as a leader or being lead by others – revealed to you about the nature of leadership? Please share your thoughts in the comments section below.