15 December 2022

What is leadership?

What is leadership?


Topic by Cristina

Essay by Lawrence


The idea we usually have of leadership is of someone guiding a group of people towards a goal. And either by habit or necessity the leader of the group is the one with most authority to show the way of what to do and maybe even how to do something.


As we know from history not all leaders are versed in successful leadership. The position of a leader does not automatically lead to successful leadership. So what are the philosophical issues with leadership?


The first issue is whether leadership is necessarily a group activity. Can we practice leadership skills on ourselves?  No doubt this question depends on how disciplined we are. In a way leadership of a group depends not only on our skills at leading others, but also how competent are members of the group at following a common objective and following instructions.


In a way leading ourselves is a bit like playing chess against ourselves: it is a skill and certainly avoiding any idea of cheating. Indeed this should lead us to a really serious philosophy question on the subject of leadership: self deception.


We have two sayings that should highlight this idea of self deception: the blind leading the blind and the other saying is "those who teach themselves have a fool for a teacher". Interesting sayings but maybe they are not suitable or adequate for today's society. I have seen blind couples being more aware of their environment than many sighted people. The other saying needs more explanation.


The second saying, those who teach themselves have a fool as a teacher, might certainly reflect a bygone mindset that learning was "learning what is" rather than "learning how to". So instead of learning, for example what is leadership, we would start with how to be a successful leader.


"How to" type of strategies mean that we can look at those who, in my example about leadership, were successful leaders. The mistake many of us make is to believe that what great leaders did to become successful, we can at the very least mimic them and maybe even emulate them. This is why sometimes I despair when today people try to emulate some ideological politician who is as relevant today as yesterday's potato peels.


As one of the important Delphi maxims reads: know thyself. Knowing thyself should not mean, knowing what we want, but more being aware of our strong skills but most important of all, knowing our weaknesses. And this is why learning from other successful leaders is not the same as emulating them or mimic them.


In a way a key failure of group leadership is to surround ourselves with "yes people". As we know "yes people" are people appointed by the leader to tell the leader what the leader wants to hear. "Yes leaders" (to call them something) cannot handle bad news or cannot handle the idea that someone else might be right. Hitler is certainly a prime example of a Yes Leader, but these people exist everywhere. Many teachers of adult learners (e.g. language) come across someone who insists that what they need is more grammar: whatever grammar means for them. The reality is that they are more likely they lack any social skills or interesting experiences they can share with others: in most cases there is nothing wrong with their grammar.


The next weakness of group leadership is simply being surrounded by incompetent people or worse, people not trained for the tasks they are supposed to be doing. We can say that leadership starts by knowing who to employ or appoint to manage the group.


By definition a philosophical argument tries to find the weakness of a proposition or a definition. And the weakness of leadership must surely be assumptions. The important issue about assumptions is that sometimes we do not realise that our strong belief is nothing more than just an unfounded belief.


The question is whether our assumptions, as leaders or whatever, are based on negligence or a false sense of certainty. But is it the case that certainty brings insanity, as written in one of the Delphi maxims?


Best and take care




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PhiloMadrid meeting on Skype 6:30pm Sunday 18th December: What is leadership?


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