Guest Commentary

Guest Commentary: On Leadership and Organizations

By Dr. Joel Schlesinger

In the office, the Little League, the School Board, or the White House, organizations deeply affect our lives. And because our organizations face a relentless tide of weighty moments, astute leaders have become an organization’s most important asset; in short, our well-being depends on top quality leadership. It is said that leadership is among the most studied phenomena, yet the least understood (one study cites more than 130 definitions): it is an art, not a science.

Leadership is a two-way process where leaders and followers work together in difficult situations to accomplish important common goals; it is not about rank or title which confer authority but do not assure leadership skill.

We know who the real leaders are in our organizations and they may hold neither rank or title: rather, they are the ones we follow when we need expertise, advice, an ear to listen, or a shoulder to lean on. Leaders exist to achieve results and since they cannot do it alone they must depend on others. Thus, leaders and followers are inextricably bound.

Successful leaders create positive, customized relationships. Since we are all different, leaders need to adjust to the preferences of those they lead and not the other way around. And that is why there is no single factor that explains exactly why followers follow leaders. Leaders find a way, in whatever circumstance, to connect with followers and motivate them to their highest levels of productivity, innovation and commitment.

Management and leadership are often thought of as interchangeable; though there may be some overlap, they are not the same.

Managers typically transform resources into goods and services through organization, personnel management, budgeting and systems development; leaders establish vision, lead change, create and maintain a positive culture and inspire the workforce. Leaders grow others. Throughout our history, character has emerged as the most consistently highly ranked leadership trait. What constitutes character evolves in accordance with the perspectives of the age.

In particular, 19th century Americans believed character represented perfectibility, dedication to work, contemplation and religious devotion. The leading character traits for mid-nineteenth century commercial leaders were honesty, integrity, moderation, positive attitude, generosity, regard for the principles of justice and a public-spirited sense of community.

Studies of twentieth century character traits are similar, but make less reference to the fundamental role that religion, contemplation and commitment to community played in nineteenth century lives. Still, the bottom line remains: we want our leaders to be people of character.

We tend to believe that leaders wield unhindered power within their organizations; yet the reality is that a vast store of internal and external contextual factors substantially influence and restrain a leader’s freedom of action

Leaders are directly bound by organizational objectives they may not have established, organizational cultures that may be difficult to alter and the diverse natures of the people they lead. Leadership behavior evolves as organizations adjust to their surrounding societies. For example, in the U.S. we protect worker privacy, carefully separating work and non-work lives. In the developing world, leaders who fail to engage daily with workers about their families may well be considered insensitive and untrustworthy. And organizations must respond to the inevitable urgencies for change driven by customers, competitors, suppliers, regulators and communities.

Context has become to leadership what location is to real estate: it is the indispensable factor.
Much of organizational leadership requires adjustments driven by a sense of urgency: to survive, what must change and how can one make it happen?

Today’s leaders need organizational leadership skills that resonate, that they can adapt to their ever-changing context, and that motivate the workforce to perform at their best: in the end, it’s all about them.

Dr. Joel Schlesinger is an award-winning organizational leader with extensive experience in private, public and non-governmental organizations in the United States and internationally.