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What IS Leadership?

Many authors, trainers and consultants have been giving their interpretations of leadership in the form of books, seminars and coaching practices. Diverse as they are, the golden thread linking these theories together is a search for the illusive secret of success; the one-size-fits-all approach to profitability. You have seen those titles right; the seven secrets to …; the 50 common mistakes of …; how to be a better …; etc.

Although those books relate nice stories that otherwise would have remained untold, I believe that the theories they put forward are flawed. The simple reason being that IF they had discovered the Holy Grail of leadership, than everyone following their lead should be successful; which is not the case. Consequently, the shelf-life of these books is less than a year and every year new books with new theories appear onto the scene only to vanish into oblivion a few months later.

The more academic reason for why these theories are inconclusive is that they are based on a fallacy; a misconception resulting from incorrect reasoning. The scientific model for verifying a theory is the “Syllogism”, a logically correct line of reasoning. For example:

  • IF it rains, THEN the roof tops get wet.
  • It rains!
  • Therefore the rooftops get wet.


Here is the fallacy used in most success-literature:

  • IF this theory is valid for ALL businesses, THEN it’s valid for SOME
  • It’s valid for SOME!
  • Therefore it’s valid for ALL.

Another commonality among success-literature is an emphasis on describing what is GOOD leadership; this is a value-judgment and no definition. It’s a “Tail-Wags-Dog-Story” where you come-up with an explanation or reasoning for your actions after the fact and then turning that theory about leadership into a theory for leaders. It’s common sense that a theory is either about something or for someone but it cannot be both at the same time!

When discussing leadership, the first question that comes to my mind is WHO or WHAT needs to be led to WHERE and WHY? As a systems’ thinker, I typically find my answers by asking the following questions:

  • Who are the “Actors”; the people, departments, systems, processes or tools involved in this issue?
  • What is their “Behavior”; the relationships between Means & Ends and Cause & Effect?
  • What is the “Purpose” of the company?

Actors, behavior and purpose are the main ingredients of a business system. One way or another, we have all experienced the awesome power of systems whether they were mechanical, social, or political. Therefore, the objective of leadership is working WITH the system and not AGAINST it. When trying to work AGAINST the system, you either destroy the system or you get destroyed yourself; don’t do it! (If you want to change the system you need to change your thinking about the system and start changing the system from within, step-by-step.)

You can only be working WITH the system if you understand how the system works. Working without that critical knowledge is called “Trial & Error”. The fact that modern business systems are complex is an additional reason for studying how your business functions as a singular, unique and integrated system. With everything connected to anything, one wrong leadership decision can start a chain reaction that collapses the entire business. The effect of poor design, incorrect implementation, faulty maintenance and bad management decisions tends to show a delayed action of hours, days, weeks, months or sometimes years. Welcome to the intriguing world of Human Error!

In 1990, the British psychologist James Reason published his authoritative study on Human Error. The two conclusions that stand out from his theory are:

  • Human error is not the cause of failure; its the symptom of a failing system.
  • Although we cannot change the human condition (the fact that people make mistakes), we can change the conditions under which people work.

What James Reason revealed are critical principles on how leadership decisions systematically defeat disable and by-pass system defenses. This body of knowledge has given rise to new leadership principles that are based on:

  • Resource Management
  • Organizational Climate
  • Organizational Process.


Here’s my point:

How you lead and what you do to lead depends on how the system you lead functions. Because you know how to lead a “Bicycle-System” does not imply equal success in leading a “Car-System” a “Truck-System” let alone an “Aircraft-System”. Aircraft are complex systems and just because desks in the “C-Suite” do not have a yoke, rudder paddles, throttles, toggle switches or gauges, a business system in not less complex than an aircraft. Furthermore, every aircraft is different and commercial pilots are even required to have a type-rating for the aircraft they fly! Where did you obtain a type-rating for the “Business-System” that you command?

In our world of incredible reverence for “deep-domain expertise” for every silo of specialized knowledge, we have an urgent need for executive leaders with keen insight into the complex and interdependent relationships between means & ends and cause & effect in order to connect those silos and paint the bigger picture perspective. That’s the service I provide; coaching, training and consulting of executive leaders on working WITH the system!

What is Leadership:

I believe that leadership is about understanding what the system requires in order to reduce the incidence of human error. Funny enough, the necessary early-warning, detection and problem-solving capabilities come from human intelligence; people are simply better equipped to reduce human error than any machine. When leaders understand that principle, they’ll never see people as a line-item expense ever again; they’ll never leave anyone behind. This simple principle has become the secret of leadership because we’ve forgotten to look out for each other. It’s my recommendation to re-read: “All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten” by Robert Fulghum, to relearn that in simplicity lies the sublime.

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