Leadership – it is hard to define but I know it when I see it

That heading was inspired by the well known saying regarding pornography by Justice Potter Stewart:

“I shall not today attempt further to define the kinds of material I understand to be embraced within that shorthand description; and perhaps I could never succeed in intelligibly doing so. But I know it when I see it, and the motion picture involved in this case is not that. [Emphasis added.]”

by Justice Potter Stewart, concurring opinion in Jacobellis v. Ohio 378 U.S. 184 (1964), regarding possible obscenity in The Lovers.

I was reading this case recently and it occurred to me that leadership is a bit like that too.

There are a myriad of management texts and cases that seek to define and categorise leadership. In the end leadership is hard to define at a purely theoretical level. But when I see it in action is blindingly apparent. And as an interesting corollary its absence is also apparent. Two cases illustrate this point:

  1. Christine Nixon in the 2009 Victorian bushfires
  2. Tony Hayward in the BP oil disaster of 2010

In each case the leader demonstrated by words and/or deeds that they were not fully on the job while their people were dealing with a desperate situation. They were not present in various ways to guide, reassure, direct, console or otherwise interact with workers, participants, victims, and other stakeholders in the particular situations in which they found themselves.

I know that these actions or words don’t look like leadership. Perhaps it is easier to describe leadership by what it is not?

Here’s a few of my thoughts:

  • Leadership is not walking away for recreation when your people are working through a crisis
  • Leadership is not complaining because people are angry with you (even though what they’re angry about might not be your direct fault)
  • Leadership is not whining
  • Leadership is not finding excuses
  • Leadership is not running away from problems

So who do I think is a good leader? One person that stands out for me is the Captain of the local Rural Fire Brigade – an unassuming chap whose name I shall not reveal (as he’d be a tad embarrassed). He does the opposite of the things listed above. He’s a steadying influence in a crisis and is there when we need him. Pity someone like him was not on duty with BP for their crisis.