'Leadership' a Murky Term in Age of Trump

By Turner, Nick | Winnipeg Free Press, September 6, 2017 | Go to article overview

'Leadership' a Murky Term in Age of Trump


Turner, Nick, Winnipeg Free Press


Years ago, my third grade teacher, Mrs. Bartlett, put a moratorium on the word “nice” in her classroom.

“It’s a feel-good, hollow word that’s easy to swallow and hard to contest — and probably something we wouldn’t want to contest anyway,” she said.

Mrs. Bartlett and George Orwell would agree.

In his essay Politics and the English Language, Orwell wrote that meaningless words “do not point to any discoverable object, but are hardly even expected to do so by the reader.”

Mrs. Bartlett’s lesson that day was the importance of clear and precise language to say what we mean and to take responsibility for the words we use.

Thirty-five years later, I would like to apply the same moratorium on the word “leadership” — at least until we are willing to say what we mean by leadership, and take responsibility for doing so.

At a point in history in which U.S. President Donald Trump’s leadership abilities are being questioned on an almost daily basis, maybe it’s just as Orwell once said: there can be benefits to meaningless language, in politics but particularly in business circles.

Unfortunately, the word leadership in the business world has become a pliable form of praise that can stand for everything and nothing all at the same time. And perhaps this haziness, as Orwell suggests, is powerful.

For some reason, leadership in business circles has reduced managing to something more formulaic and generally less worthy, although it certainly sounds better. Who would want to be called a manager when you can be called a leader?

According to researchers Mats Alvesson and Stefan Sveningsson, attaching leadership cachet to everyday behaviours such as acknowledging others, listening well and generally just chatting “extraordinarizes the mundane.”

Automatically granting leadership status to job titles may highlight a manager’s authority over others and his or her profile within an organization, but it also reflects how unquestioning we are about what leadership is.

Why is it so difficult to define leadership — and perhaps also desirable for businesses to disguise what they mean by it? How do we define “real” leadership?

As a leadership scholar I contend, first, that we confuse interpersonal influence — at the core of any theory of leadership — with what we believe its outcomes are.

Defining leadership in terms of the innovation it produces, the profitability it claims to yield or how it ignites progress muddies the waters between cause and effect. …

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