“I was reading a biography of Gandhi the other day and I was struck by a thought that is really puzzling me” commented one of my graduate mentees in a recent coaching session. ”I can see why people who knew him and shared the experiences of his time would want to be led by him but what is it about Gandhi or any of the other great leaders that draw each and every one of us to them? ”
“An interesting question” I responded as I pondered the underlying complexity of this seemingly simple assessment of how we are prone to evaluate leadership. “What thoughts have you come up with so far?” I asked.
“Well, it’s pretty clear to me that whenever we describe great leaders we talk about their vision, their sense of purpose and their seemingly indefatigable commitment often in the face of overwhelming adversity. This was certainly true in Gandhi’s case” she continued “so much so that he was able to galvanise a whole nation.”
“Very true, a remarkable leader in anybody’s language” I concurred. “So you can describe the qualities that great leaders possess and how they related to their immediate followers; this is pretty standard stuff but how would you describe how this relates to you or anybody else for that matter?”
“I’m not sure I understand what you mean” she looked puzzled.
“Well it would seem to me that the sphere of influence of these great leaders extended way beyond their immediate group of followers. Their leadership (and indeed any leadership) can be viewed as extending to more than one context and provide the opportunity for additional groups of followers to exist” I continued by way of explanation.
“Ah, so you’re saying that when I think of a great leader it is in the context of a leader/follower relationship.” she enquired.
“Yes precisely” I confirmed “but in a different context. Whilst you may relate to the leaders vision that so inspired the original group of followers; you, I and numerous others are embracing the leadership activity itself. And we are doing this this through the expression of our own values not those of the leaders.”
“Ok, so you’re saying that the relationship that a leader has with his followers has no boundaries and that a leader can have groups of followers that he is completely unaware of!”
“Of course” I agreed. “Provokes some interesting thoughts about communication, doesn’t it?”