Real World Leadership and Real World Leaders

What Is Leadership?

There are few questions that have had as many attempts at being answered as that of what is leadership?

For as long as I have been interested in leadership, it has always seemed to me that much (the overwhelming majority, no doubt) of the literature on leadership concentrates on the exceptions (Shackleton, Churchill, Napoleon, choose whoever are your favourites to expand the list). Just one example must suffice. A book by John Adair entitled Inspiring Leadership has the subtitle Learning from Great Leaders. As the title and subtitle suggest, the book is a roll call of a plethora of historic leadership figures.

I do not for a moment suggest that this is wrong nor that we cannot learn from such leadership studies. However, the leadership that happens day in day out in colleges, schools, offices, factories and other organizations, at all levels, I should suggest, is carried out by very ordinary people whose names will never enter the history books. People who have not been born great; will never achieve greatness, nor have it thrust upon them.

Leadership In The Real World

In Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night, Malvolio reads out aloud a letter that had been written with the design of tricking him into making a fool of himself with Olivia. If the comedic effect of the letter is put to one side, as so often with Shakespeare, the words offer an acute observation of human nature, albeit a minute section of it. A few leaders are born great (perhaps, Winston Churchill, William Gladstone), some are driven to achieve greatness (Napoleon Bonaparte, perhaps) and others have it thrust upon them (Ernest Shackleton, for example). No doubt the three categories overlap.

It is my contention that the overwhelming majority of leaders do not fall into any of those three categories. Some are born highly talented, some are driven to succeed and no doubt some find themselves in the right place at the right time to achieve something special. However, leadership, says Hasib Muhammad, writing for the Huffington Post, is not reserved for extraordinary people:

“Everyone, regardless of talent or caliber, has leadership. Leadership is about leading yourself and others. In today’s society, those who lead others are celebrated because the results of their choices are easily seen. What about the man who has worked long, silent nights to provide for his family?”

I think the point in the above quotation is one that is well made. We are tempted always to equate leadership with greatness. But why should that be. There will always be acts of great leadership and there will always be great leaders who are defined by their leadership. On the other hand, there will always be, there always has to be, a whole army of very ordinary people who day in day out exercise leadership in a way that is nothing more than competent.

Referring to these acts of leadership as nothing more than competent is no insult. Indeed, it is quite the reverse. Modern society could not function unless there are people who are prepared to take on the tasks of real world leadership. They will never be honored; they will hardly be known outside of their communities; they will never be written about. But without them, our lives would be far more burdensome.

In short, it is my contention that day-to-day leadership is exercised not by people who fall into one of Shakespeare’s elite triad but by people who are born competent, achieve competence or have competence thrust upon them.

Garry Costain is the Managing Director of Caremark Thanet, a domiciliary care provider with offices in Margate, Kent. Caremark Thanet provides home care services throughout the Isle of Thanet. Garry writes blogs on all matters to do with care and business. Garry can be contacted on 01843 235910 or email You can also visit Caremark Thanet’s website at

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