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Stephen Covey on Leadership

It is hard to disagree with the principles that Stephen Covey describes in his book Principle Centered Leadership but it is arguable that people can show leadership without following them.

Stephen Covey claims that you need to be a very self-aware, mature, principled person to be a leader. His view of leadership shares with most other models the idea that being a leader means being a certain kind of person.

Because character seems to matter more than anything else for Covey, we get the impression that any one who has it could lead in any context on any topic.

However, there are millions of instances of leadership that are content based, such as technological or green leadership, that are not so dependent on being a certain type of person. To fully understand leadership, we need to see how it is possible to lead without following principles such as Covey’s.

First, we need to differentiate between the descriptive and the normative perspective on leadership. The former simply describes how leadership works and includes leadership shown in teenage street gangs, criminal organizations and terrorist groups. The normative slant focuses on how leadership should be shown. The normative angle says that, to be a “great” or widely admired leader, you need to behave in accordance with agreed values or principles.

It is clear that Stephen Covey’s model of leadership is a normative one: he is saying that, to be a leader, you must follow a set of principles. We thus need to examine Covey’s model from both angles: descriptive and normative.

Describing How Leadership Works

We know for a fact that leadership occurs in all kinds of groups, contexts and cultures, many of which have never heard of Stephen Covey or his principles. There are criminal, terrorist, street gang and cult leaders, none of whom you or I might follow but they all have one thing in common: people have chosen to follow them.

If criminals and cult founders can be leaders without following Covey’s principles then they can’t be necessary for leadership to occur. Leadership is a form of influence and it occurs whenever people are influenced to follow, regardless of what the leader is like as a person.

This point can be reinforced by comparing leading to selling. Both are forms of influence but they are different: leadership focuses on achieving shared goals while selling is self-interested. Sales people want to make the most money they can from a sale while the customer has the opposite objective: to get the best possible deal.

But, leading and selling have something important in common: they only occur when someone follows or buys, that is, when their particular form of influence works. Otherwise, we have only attempted leadership or sales.

This means that leading, like selling, is actually an impact, as is all influence in fact. With regard to sales, we say that “there is no accounting for taste” or “there’s a sucker born every minute.” These derogatory sayings show that selling is not just about the character of the sales person but what the customer likes to buy.

Similarly, we may be baffled about why people followed Adolf Hitler or notorious cult leaders, but the same process is at work. Leadership occurs when people follow. Two points can be made on the basis of this discussion.

  1. Leadership can be shown by some pretty unprincipled people. 
  2. Leadership cannot be defined as an input anyway; it’s not about the person leading; it’s about the follower’s decision to follow. That is, like sales, it’s an impact or output.

This means that, from a purely descriptive point of view, it is pointless to discuss what type of person it takes to be a leader because the truth is that any kind will do as long as some people think that such a person is worth following.

Of course we could ask a different kind of descriptive question. Instead of asking what it takes to be a leader in general, we could ask what it takes to lead a large, publicly accountable organization in modern democratic countries. The latter is a much narrower question, but it is the one that most leadership gurus want to answer. Their ideal examples of “great” leaders are famous political leaders like Winston Churchill or larger-than-life CEOs like Jack Welch.

But, as I have argued in “The Ideal Leader” our decision to ignore inconvenient examples of leadership and focus on our “ideal” image of the leader says more about us and our needs than it does about how leadership actually works.

To conclude this discussion of the descriptive slant on leadership, the bottom line is that it is possible to show leadership without following any principles such as those Covey advocates. Further, a lot of leadership is not what he calls “inside out” by which he means that leaders first know themselves before they lead others, that their leadership is based on their character.

Leadership has more of a content dimension than we are led to believe by gurus who focus on being a certain kind of person. For instance, there is green leadership, financial, thought, market and technological leadership, among others. To show leadership in a particular domain, content matters. Promoting a strong stand on a particular content issue, such as the environment, can have a leadership impact on others independently of the character of the person promoting it.

Similarly, all employees lead by example every day, simply by doing their work in a better way than others, provided others follow their example.  Employees who lead by example might not have any interest or talent to be a positional leader but that doesn’t stop them from showing leadership on a one-off basis. That is, leading by example doesn’t depend on having a high level of self-awareness, maturity or any other admired character trait.

Finally, groups can show leadership to other groups as Greenpeace does or market leading companies do to their competitors. A group is clearly not a kind of person. When a market leading company leads its competitors, this is an impact based on influence. It does not entail being in charge of followers.

The Normative Dimension

How can we know what we should do in order to lead others? This depends on what we mean by this question. Are we asking what we need to do to ascend to an executive role in a large organization or do we want to know how to show leadership on an occasional, one-off basis?

Most leadership gurus and their readers are interested in the first question, which is why most people subscribe to the view that being the right sort of person matters. But there are two problems with this question:

  1. It so confuses leadership and management that we can’t say which activities count as leading and which count as managing. 
  2. it ignores one-off instances of leadership that are not role-based. Here the point is not just that such leadership is informal, but that it can come from outside the organization altogether and, to make matters worse, it can be shown by one group to another, so it doesn’t even have to be shown by an individual, let alone one in charge of people.

Let’s focus on the second question first: how can you show leadership on a one-off basis? This is a matter of finding some content that you can feel passionate about, then persuading others to adopt your view. Your “content” can be as grand as saving the environment or as everyday as improving a product or a work related process.

Notice, that this has nothing to do with becoming a certain kind of person first. This puts the cart before the horse. You need content you can feel passionate about first. You may be able to influence some people with your passion or determination alone, regardless of what kind of a person you are otherwise.

Now let’s look at the first question: What do you have to do to gain and hold onto an executive position? The most important difference between these two questions is that this one entails responsibility for people. The first question is simply about your ability to influence others to follow your lead. Green leadership, for example, may have a leadership impact on distant communities where the leader doesn’t even know the people who choose to follow, let alone have any responsibility for them.

On the other hand, ALL roles entail responsibilities: husband, wife, parent, teacher, welder, lighthouse keeper and executive, to name a few. Whether we call an executive a leader or not, being one entails massive responsibilities, often for large numbers of people.

ALL responsibilities also require trust, not just executives but store clerks, delivery van drivers and lonely lighthouse keepers need to be trustworthy. We need to trust anyone who has any kind of responsibility, regardless of the importance of the role.

Now we could say that there are two kinds of leadership: that which is role-based and in charge of people and that which is simply one-off influence impacts. Or, we could say that leadership is really only the latter. This move means that we need to call executives something other than leaders by virtue of their role.

We can call them executives, managers, chiefs, presidents, premiers, vice presidents or any number of other names. On this view, we would say that management is a role but leadership is an occasional activity.

This means that being a manager or executive may depend on being a certain kind of person, one who behaves in accordance with principles such as those Stephen Covey advocates.

In conclusion, what are we to make of the relationship between principles and leadership? Briefly, having certain character traits is a situational influencing style or approach. It depends on the issues and the type of people you want to lead.

For example, to show leadership on how to develop a certain kind of software, you need to know a lot about that software. To show leadership on an issue that depends on, say integrity, you likely need to have integrity yourself.

That is, sterling character may be a necessary condition to hold positions of significant responsibility, but it is only a situational requirement for having a leadership impact on some audiences and with regard to some kinds of issues.

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