The Paradox of Leadership

According to a recent survey, there are more than 15,000 books on leadership in print. Articles on leadership number in the thousands each year. The obvious conclusions we can draw from these facts are that there are more books and articles on leadership available than we can ever hope to read and that leadership clearly is a crucial and abiding topic of interest to countless women and men in society.

Despite the popularity of the topic, leadership remains a paradox. People who seek to understand it by reading a primer on the topic will inevitably be frustrated and disappointed. Leadership, after all, is an art, not a science. And leadership is not limited to a professional field or industry, be it corporate, governmental, military, academic, religious, or service. Leaders transcend the confines of a defining box.

First of all, leaders are not born but evolve into that role. According to Warren Benis, a noted authority on leadership, “The most dangerous leadership myth is that leaders are born—that there is a genetic factor to leadership. That’s nonsense; in fact, the opposite is true. Leaders are made rather than born.”

The magic of leadership was best captured by Lao Tzu: “A leader is best when people barely know he exists, when his work is done, his aim fulfilled, they will say: we did it ourselves.” This is the art of leadership at its best: the art that conceals art.

Leadership is a protean art that defies a simple definition. It can take the form of a brash “command and control” style epitomized by General George S. Patton: “Lead me, follow me, or get out of my way.”

Or it can take a subtler form of leadership as exemplified by Nelson Mandela: “It is better to lead from behind and to put others in front, especially when you celebrate victory when nice things occur. You take the front line when there is danger. Then people will appreciate your leadership.”

Perhaps President John F. Kennedy put it best when he observed, “Leadership and learning are indispensable to each other.” Leaders learn to become leaders, and they continue to learn in their role as leaders.

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