Leadership as Choice

What is leadership? This is a great question, and answers abound. A simple Google search for “what is leadership,” will produce 98,000,000 results. It seems like everyone who writes about leadership has a list of characteristics, behaviors, beliefs or great quotes from successful people to share as the “definition” of leadership. This approach to defining leadership isn’t necessarily right or wrong, but the pervasiveness of theories/definitions, and propagation of leadership “lists” causes me to pause and reflect on what the core of leadership really is.

One struggle I have in defining leadership is that it is so contextual and so situational that generating a broad definition is nearly impossible. In asking questions to mentors and individuals I deeply respect, each one offers a different opinion or thought on what leadership is. There are academic theories rooted in research, there are business and community engagement theories rooted in practice and application, and there are others that bridge theory and practice.

But who’s to say which one is best – or which one we can rely on? I am often troubled by the sheer quantity of leadership definitions. It can be confusing to know what to think, what to advocate for, what to believe and what to embody.

Four years ago, I stumbled upon a book, Heroic Leadership, by author Chris Lowney. In this book, Lowney examines the Jesuit understanding and practice of leadership. He shares four principles, and the first principle is that “we’re all leading all the time, either well or poorly.”

This principle rocked my understanding of leadership. It brought leadership from a lofty, theoretical base, to an understanding that leadership exists in moments.

Leadership is a Choice

Ultimately, I’ve come to the understanding that leadership is about the choices we make and the actions we take each moment, all the time. Whether we are leading is not contingent upon position, but rather upon how we show up where we are. These decisions we make exist in the context around us – the self-awareness and relationships we hold, and the systems and cultures that surround us.

Leadership as a choice is contingent on intentionally thinking about our choices from our context. These choices can be informed by the theories, practices and characteristics we believe in and embody, applied to the context in which we find ourselves.

Leadership as choice identifies that sometimes our choices are right and good, and other times they are not. It gives space for failure without diminishing one’s sense of whether they are a leader. Either we did it well in that moment or we didn’t, we can learn from it, and move on to the next moment and do better.

No matter how you define leadership or which theory or practice you hold, it is important to have one. Recognizing that leadership is in the choices we make –large or small – can aid in raising our intention to be leaders in individual moments.

How do you define leadership? What guides your choices?

To view part II, click here.


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Dave Newell is director of the Chidsey Center for Leadership Development.

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