Jeffrey Pfeffer, a professor at Stanford, lays into the leadership industry in his book Leadership B.S. He states, “Stop accepting sugar-laced but toxic potions as cures.”  This blunt critique warns against leadership gurus and self-proclaimed experts who deliver inspiring fables and stories that might make people feel good, but don’t help to improve leadership.  According to the former Prime Minister of Greece George A. Papandreou, a keynote speaker at the 2017 International Leadership Conference, we are at a critical juncture that requires effective leadership.  According to Pfeffer and Papandreou, we need research-based support for effective leadership. This important reminder is why I am sharing with you the what, how, and why of leadership as supported by the research.

Let’s start with the ‘what of leadership’.  Leadership is not the executive team, the boss, or the manager.  Those are people in positions of authority, and the research is clear that they do not automatically qualify as leaders.  Even though the terms leader and leadership are often used interchangeably, the research distinguishes between the two.  Leaders, the people, are not the same as leadership, the process.  Leadership the process involves leaders, followers, and context (the situation). How these factors interact either helps or hinders goal achievement.

This moves us to the ‘how of leadership’, the roadmap for what needs to happen between leaders and followers in certain situations to be successful.  Ronald Meijers, a Partner at Deloitte, and Ron Myer, a professor at Tilburg University, spoke about the importance of acting like a chameleon. People need to understand their current situation and their role in that situation, and then do what is required to get the right results, the right way. Meijers and Myer point to the limiting nature of relying on only one style of leadership. The research backs their point, offering evidence that supports many different approaches to leadership.  Much like a chameleon needs to change colors to match its environment, people need to change their styles to match the situation.

Patrick Sweet, the co-chair for the 2017 International Leadership Association conference, argued that the leadership research community is shifting its focus from the what and how of leadership to the why of leadership. He challenged us to embrace this shift. I think this right, and important.

Leadership is a process for achieving goals, but it leaves it to people to define those goals. The why of leadership is exactly where we need to start challenging ourselves.  Organizations need to change perspective from looking at doing good as merely a means to an end, such as making a profit, to doing good as an end in itself.  This underscores the current shift in business thinking from maximizing shareholder value to optimizing stakeholder value. Embracing this shift in perspective will help organizations construct goals of value, goals that focus on affecting the greater good.

I think Sweet’s challenge is just that though, a challenge. It calls us to take a hard look at the why of leadership.  But I have hope that we can meet this challenge.  The public good, stakeholder value, sustainability, and organizational responsibility have all entered into the public discourse. Not to mention the focus on organizational purpose, along with the questions swirling around the utility of capitalism. I hope that we continue to have dialogue about the why of leadership, and that the conversations are thoughtful and productive. We need to continue to highlight all of the people who approach their organizations and positions of power as vehicles for positively impacting the lives of people and the community, because doing so will help advance the why of leadership.

(Adapted from part three of the original 3-part series published by the Reading Eagle Business Weekly on 11-21-17 sharing takeaways from the International Leadership Association’s Global Conference in Brussels, Belgium)