Exercising leadership needs conflict and courage

I am currently attending a one week course on “leadership” at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, which is one of the academic temples for policy wonks like me. Luckily there are none of the usual clichés on “Are you born a leader, or can you learn to become one?” The central premise of the course is that all of us, no matter what position we have in our organizations or communities, can exercise leadership by defying the established ways of doing things.

Exercising leadership, the course contends, means stepping outside of the comfort zone of meeting the expectations that others have of you and your role. Leadership courses spend usually a lot of time on distinguishing leadership from management. Management is then defined as organizing a process whereby you allocate financial, human and other resources to achieve a purpose, while leadership is about expressing a vision that changes people and makes them into allies for your cause. But this course goes further than just distinguishing management and leadership. It argues that exercising leadership involves challenging the ways things are usually managed in your organization. Management focuses on what the organization can achieve (and on improving how things work); but can it change or adapt the values of the organization? That requires someone, at the top or at the bottom of the organization, who defies existing authority structures and shows a new path.

Another refreshing aspect of the course is that it shies away from clichés such as “exercising leadership means creating win-win situations”, and invites us to think about where the losses are for people following leadership interventions. Exercising leadership means overcoming resistance, the course proposes, and that requires a combination of firm dedication to the purpose that you are trying to accomplish with a dose of brutal realism on what makes people tick inside of your own organization and outside of it. This is where the ethics of leadership should come in strongly: who exactly decides on the purpose worth pursuing, and which methods are acceptable in that pursuit?