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George Reed
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George Reed

A retired U.S. Army Colonel, George Reed is an associate professor in the Department of Leadership Studies within the School of Leadership and Education Sciences at the University of San Diego.

The Pedestal Problem

The Nobel Prize is one of the world's most recognized and esteemed honors. Since 1901 it has been awarded for achievements in a limited number of categories: physics, medicine or physiology, chemistry, literature, and for peace. There are certainly many other categories of human endeavor that are worthy of worldwide recognition, including leadership. While I would like to see great practices of leadership acknowledged, I admit some mixed emotions about such an award.

The very act of establishing the award criteria might have at least one positive benefit. It could help drive toward a consensus on the definition of leadership. As it stands now, well-intentioned people often talk past each other when using the term. To some, leadership is equivalent to a position of power and authority, while to others it signifies an influence process. For a start we might consider James MacGregor Burns' notion of "transforming leadership," which he described in his groundbreaking 1978 book, Leadership.

Burns saw transformational leadership as more than brute application of power or mere charisma. Transforming leadership takes place when leaders engage in such a way that both leaders and followers are moved to high levels of motivation and morality. In that process followers are converted into leaders, and leaders can become moral agents.

We might also consider the late Joseph Rost's definition from his 1991 book, Leadership for the Twenty-First Century, in which he argued that leadership is an influence relationship between leaders and followers who aim for change reflects their mutual purposes. In both definitions leaders are those who motivate others, who harness human capacity for change.

I have mixed feelings about the prospect of a leadership award because I suspect the winners might be chosen more due to their notoriety rather than their true leadership excellence. By exalting great singular public figures we ordinary people tend to distance ourselves from the practice of leadership. That is unfortunate when the potential for leadership rests in every person.

Some of my favorite leaders will never appear on the front page, nor will books be written about them. They have names that would only be recognized by those they inspired, but they were magnificent examples nonetheless.

Most of the popular approaches to leadership emphasize one person--the leader--and pay scant attention to myriad others who work in relative obscurity to accomplish great things. One person can make a difference, but they rarely do so alone. At its best leadership is a willing partnership.

I often say that if you lead and "they" don't follow then it really isn't leadership. If we accept this principle then the Nobel Prize for Leadership could not be awarded to one person. Leadership is a team effort and should be recognized as such.

By George Reed

 |  October 12, 2009; 10:06 PM ET
Category:  Leadership personalities Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   Del.icio.us   StumbleUpon   Technorati  
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Mentioning the Nobel Prize and leadership raises a question of leadership norms across cultures. While there may be some international consensus of "Peace," (and I am skeptical), I believe trying to define "Leadership" across cultural divides would pose an even greater challenge.

For example, how can we speak of leadership as motivating others and maximizing human potential when many cultures do not believe women should engage in societal roles outside the family and the home? And how can we recognize transformational leadership if transformation is valued much less than tradition and stability?

Because the United States and its Western allies have struggled with cultural issues surrounding ideals of democracy, equal rights, and rule of law in Iraq and Afghanistan, I am curious to see what other readers think of leadership norms across cultures. How universal are they?

Posted by: TominGA | October 13, 2009 12:04 PM
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"By exalting great singular public figures we ordinary people tend to distance ourselves from the practice of leadership. That is unfortunate when the potential for leadership rests in every person."

I disagree with this comment. By "exalting" (and I dislike that prejudical word) leaders we give people something to aspire to. There is nothing wrong with giving people something to aspire too. Sadly, we have lowered expectations so much that expecting people to aspire seems kind of cruel.

I completely agree that leaders fail when people refuse to be led. But this "team effort" thing seems to mimick the self-esteem philosophy in our country. Even the substandard get recognized for simply breathing.

While everyone may have a role in successful leadership, not everyone is willing to step forward and accept the slings and arrows that come with leadership. For this alone, leaders deserve to be honored.

Posted by: arancia12 | October 13, 2009 11:25 AM
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