The Ambiguity of Leadership

When I was teaching a philosophy class, I would ask students, “What philosophy is not?” I had been using this question to provoke thoughts, generate new ideas and remove possible ambiguities. Every student would come up with original and sincere answers. I also used to apply the same technique in other fields, such as education and leadership courses. For instance, in a leadership class, I used to ask three subjective questions: “Who was the most misunderstood man ever? Who was the most evil man ever? What is the most ambiguous field ever?”

On the first two questions, students used to supply different answers from time to time, but with the last question almost more half of the students agreed that leadership is the most ambiguous field ever.

Basically, leadership is a social fiber and vital for nations to prosper. It is true that without leadership there would not be any civilization. Its importance has become more apparent in this decade with the escalating of global problems: poverty, social upheavals, political conflicts, natural disaster and nuclear weapons. Its absence is equivalent to lack of normal development in societies. Regardless of its importance, there is little known about it. It is the most misunderstood field ever. Leadership seems to be a very subjective field. People somehow confuse it to a position, power, recognition, fame or big office. By its very nature, it is open for public discussions and interpretations. I must, therefore, admit that leadership is an ambiguous or an elusive field.

On my personal interest and initiative, I have been trying to explore the essence of leadership. I have read a number of books on the field from ancient to contemporary concepts. I have also watched and attended several leadership lecturers, conferences and workshops. Yet, I have not come across precise terms that can satisfy my hunger in understanding the field. Generally, it is defined as a practice to inspire or motivate subordinates for a work to be done. This is the common definition at public knowledge, but it is too general and shallow. The right definition has to be born yet.

Models of leadership change over time. Throughout the centuries, we have seen a number of leadership styles and models, but experiences have shown that not a single leadership style or model has survived to suffice social situations. Leaders, therefore, have learnt to employ a situational leadership style based on situations. For instance, if circumstances are chaotic, and require an immediate order from above, leaders apply an autocratic leadership style to avoid turbulence. On the other hand, if situations are at a normal state, leaders apply a democratic or laissez-faire leadership style.

At times, situational leadership style has no importance, whatsoever. I agree with the practice of situational leadership style, if the ultimate purpose of leadership is to maintain a social order and control people tightly. But I would disagree, if the purpose of leadership is to inspire individuals in order to realize their potentials and live to their maximum capabilities. Time has proved that better change and growth are not byproducts of poor leadership practices, but rather outcomes of talent discovery. For instance, realized individuals, such as Thomas Edison, Einstein, Henry Ford or Steve Job, changed the world enormously. Leadership practices should provide challenging situations where individuals can test their talents to create.

Challenging situations produce scientists, whereas poor leadership practices produce submissive and uncreative individuals. Individuals need challenging environments to discover new things and understand their purposes. However, weak leaders weigh stagnant societies more than individuals’ growth. A society as a center of civilization reduces citizens to a slavery mode of life. In a world where political struggle dominates, the individual has no fundamental rights at all; he always comes at the fringe of a society to serve indefinitely as in the case of Eritrea. In Eritrea, citizens have no political and economic freedoms. When leadership is handled wrongly, it becomes ambiguous. In other words, its definition, meaning and concepts vanish among ideologies, power struggle, interests, wars, corruption and many other petty things.

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