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Leadership begins within us; you can learn it

Bob Vanourek
Special to the DailyBob Vanourek takes his grandson on the lad's first pony ride. Vanourek writes a column on leadership and teaches values-based leadership at the University of Denver and Colorado Mountain College. His CMC class starts Aug. 30
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Editor’s note: First in a continuing series on mastering the art of leadership.

Bob Vanourek is teaching the class “Leadership: The Art and Practice” at Colorado Mountain College beginning Aug. 30.

We’re trying a series of his columns on leadership. Let us know what you think by e-mailing rwyrick@vaildaily.com.

Dennis Koslowski, Ken Lay, Barry Bonds, Kobe Bryant. Are these the leadership models of today? Where is the great, honorable leadership we all want so much? Great leadership ” inspirational leadership, leadership in which we can trust ” seems to be sorely lacking these days.

Though most of us think of great leadership as the province of exceptional men and women, actually, each of us has wonderful leadership potential within. Each of us can influence, inspire and change others for the better. Each of us can lead.

But leadership is complex and paradoxical. Are leaders born or made? Should one be tough and decisive (ostensibly, more masculine), or listen and care for people deeply (ostensibly, more feminine)? Should leaders focus on doing whatever it takes to get results by telling others what to do, or should leaders serve? Leadership is one of the most extensively studied subjects in history, yet we still have much to learn about it.

Plato advocated the philosopher king as the ideal leader. Decades of education and training, physical skills, higher mathematics, debate and rhetoric, and then years of apprenticeship in serving the state were involved in developing a philosopher king. Even then, only a few might emerge as having the wisdom to lead benevolently.

History brought us the myths of King Arthur and the knights of the Round Table. This was the golden age of chivalry where a few heroic, noble lords pledged to defend the weak and gentlewomen, to show mercy to conquered enemies and to never take up battles for wrongful quarrels or worldly goods.

Machiavelli published “The Prince” in 1513, a handbook for how to become and remain a ruler. Here the end justifies the means. Stability can only be maintained by a tyrannical prince who is not afraid to use armed force and who dispenses benefits only sparingly. Moral principles yield to circumstances. When a territory is conquered, the Prince resides there and immediately executes all the former rulers and their families.

Over time, think of the different types of leaders we have learned about: the great kings and queens of Europe, the emperors and shoguns of China and Japan, the czars of Russia, Joan of Arc, Napoleon, our founding fathers, Lincoln, the Roosevelts, Hitler, Stalin, Churchill, Gandhi, the Dalai Lama, Kennedy, Martin Luther King Jr., and Nelson Mandela to name just a few. Their leadership approaches are so different. How can we sort this all out? How can we unlock our own leadership potential?

While leadership is indeed complex and may never be completely mastered, we can make great strides in understanding some of the key principles involved in great leadership. This series of articles will explore these key principles as well as some of the common myths about leadership. By understanding and practicing these principles, our own innate leadership potential will emerge.

Let’s start with what leadership is not. It’s not authority, or power, or management. Leadership may involve the use of authority, or the exercise of power over people, or the use of some management tools at times. But the best leadership often does not. Leadership without authority or power can be extremely effective. Mother Theresa had little authority or power (she didn’t even have an MBA!). Yet she was without a doubt a wonderful example of leadership to millions. General Patton on the other hand often used authority, power, and managerial tools. He showed flashes of leadership brilliance.

Different definitions of leadership abound, and most are them are instructive. I have always liked Peter Drucker’s definition: “a leader is one who has followers.” Manning and Curtis define leadership as “initiating and guiding with the result being change.” This series will cite numerous definitions of leadership, and you can choose the one that resonates best with you, or formulate your own.

Ron Heifetz at Harvard’s Kennedy School encourages us to avoid using the label “leader” as though one has an “L” stamped on their forehead and is expected to “Lead” all the time. Leadership is something you do some of the time; at other times you follow, or even just coast. So, we need to re-examine one of the myths of leadership:

Myth No. 1: In any one organization there can be only one leader (invariably, an alpha male at the top of the hierarchy).

Sorry, folks; false, false, false. In today’s complex world no one person can ever have all the answers all the time. If they pretend they do, that organization is in deep trouble. Leadership frequently involves being out there in the swamp, beyond, not only one’s comfort zone, but completely beyond one’s competencies. At that point, the group cannot rely on just one person, the superhero. Leadership, especially in chaos and on high performance teams, is plural, it ebbs and flows from one person to another depending on their competency, passion, or responsibility. The wise hierarchical authority (the person at the top with the title and position power) should be comfortable with that flow, and let it happen. Great results then begin to emerge.

Leadership Development Tip: Study examples of good and bad leadership.

Next article: The First Dimension of Great Leadership.

Bob Vanourek is an adjunct instructor at Denver University and Colorado Mountain College. He is a retired CEO and former Chair of the Vail Leadership Institute. CMC is offering his course, “Leadership: The Art and Practice” in the fall of 2006. Contact him at bobvanourek@comcast.net.

Vail Daily, Vail, Colorado


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