Leadership is a term that describes a relationship. No relationship, no leadership. Leadership can only be defined in terms of followers. No followers, no leadership. Cut across this apparent platitude for a minute and suspend judgement.
The early centuries dessert hermits were not great leaders at the time. Then, some of their writings were diffused over centuries. Some are considered thought leaders today, even if they never had troupes around. Can an hermit be a leader? If he has followers, yes he can. What would describe them as leaders is not a sort of intrinsic set of characteristics (wisdom, humility, vision) but the existence of a relationship which entails people following them
Harrison White, (e.g Identity and Control, 1992, 2008) one of the greatest living sociologists, has been very clear about what he considers the error of attributing traits to ‘leadership’, despite the thousand of books that do so. There are not universals here. It’s not something that you have. It’s what you practice and the how.
For every set of attributes associated to a good leader (or a good company, or successful organization for that matter) one has to see if some or all of those attributes are also found in not so good leaders (or unsuccessful organizations).
We know more about the liabilities of not having something than the benefits of having it. Translation: we know that a leader that is not honest, that has little integrity, that treats people like commodities and has an ego bigger than the Sun, is bad news. He will have that negative influence, will run the organization in a particular way, will be a disaster.
Now, let’s have the opposite. A leader that is very honest, has tremendous integrity, treats people with high respect and is humble and servant, is surely a gem to have. Do the combination of all these make him a good leader? No, sorry. It makes him a great human being. Those ‘good attributes’ are not exclusive of that category/concept called ‘leadership’. But it’s great to have this around.
A great deal of so called research, which in pop-business-culture is often translated into those 10 habits, 10 characteristics, 10 things, 10 attributes, is flawed. That does not make it ‘not interesting’ and, for sure, it does not seem a handicap to write a book about it.
Leadership is not something that one has or not, is something that one practices in a social context and that translates into patterns of behaviours and relationships. Our ‘individual interest’ is out of focus.