On leadership

So if you read the last posting, I closed with a promise–a discussion of leadership to follow a discussion of power. Not that the two are synonymous, but few would dispute that there is a connection between the two.

When I think of leadership, my thoughts are shaped by both the French and Raven typology, as well as by my own academic background–and of course my experiences and my preferences.

I’m a rhetorician–I study the meaning and uses of symbols, and language is symbolic. I was trained and educated at a time when post-modern/post-structural theories (and that is an extremely broad conception) of language were dominant, so my approach to the study and use of symbols is tied to those theories. Take a look at my bookshelf some time–lots of Kenneth Burke and Wayne Booth, with a sprinkling of Foucault-and plenty of classical rhetorical theories from the Sophists to the Elocutionists, many of whom I would argue shared to some extent post-modern/post-structural theories of language–well, maybe not so much the Elocutionists.

So what does that have to do with leadership? At least my approach to leadership?

Well, I find leadership to be a very symbolic activity, grounded in the use of symbols (language and many others) to help shape perception and action. (Meta-point–this blog is persuasion and therefore leadership as it is an attempt to use symbols to shape perception and action). Which, unsurprisingly, is also how I define persuasion–another common topic I have taught and studied for a number of years.

Leadership is persuasion.

And persuasion, as I tell students over and over again, is not about getting people to change their minds, or convincing them to do what you want them to do. Persuasion, and therefore leadership, is knowing what you want to be accomplished, working to find common ground between what you want to be accomplished and what your audience (those whom have the power to make what you want to happen, happen) values, believes or perceives to be in their best interest. You don’t persuade people to do something they don’t want to do; you persuade people that what you want to accomplish is also what they want to accomplish and you do so by creating identification between your wants and desires and their wants and desires (see, as noted above, Kenneth Burke for what I mean by identification).

Leadership, therefore, is a continuing practice in creating a common understanding.

Next: Ethics, Persuasion and Leadership

Have a happy holiday.


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