A Different Take on Leadership

Webster’s Online Dictionary offers several definitions of leadership, among them: “the capacity to lead” and “the act or an instance of leading”. In other words, leadership could be the ability, skills and knowledge required to lead, but it could also be the act of leading itself. In our present day, we spend a lot of time talking and writing about leadership and there are myriad programs on leadership available. There are those who believe that leaders are naturally born, and others that leadership can be taught. I believe that leadership is more than a set of skills that can be taught in a seminar; leadership comes from within but must be honed and polished both by learning and experience. I would like to write about a program of that I took part in a year ago that illustrates that point.

The Program, Vital Leadership Advantage, offered by the University of Notre Dame’s Mendoza College of Business, takes as its starting point who the leader is. Right off the bat, the participants knew something was different, when it was pointed out to us that our name is not who we are, nor do our current titles really establish any identity for us (well, maybe Chief Bulldog starts to get there!). What establishes a person’s identity is what they stand for and where that stand takes them!

For instance, one of my deeply held commitments is for justice, and I work at not overlooking injustice when I see it. One of the co-facilitators of the seminar pointed out to me that I really was justice, and that I was a center for the creating justice. I had never really thought of it that way.

Despite that revelation, what was most impressive to me on the first day of the seminar were the people around me who were committed leaders, ranging from a man who is working to rid the Holy Land of Land Mines, several executives of major US corporations and even an executive of a charity group who I dropped off at O’Hare airport after the seminar. His next stop was Haiti!

Vital Leadership Advantage did not just look to the interior, but to the world at large, challenging us to see where we fit into the world at large and the challenges that the world faces. The question was could we find ways of approaching those challenges that were synchronous with leading the companies and other groups as we were presently engaged in?

In order to help us achieve breakthroughs, the seminar built on personal insight and clarity of vision of the world around us not just to respond to the immediate cause of problem, but to understand the underlying roots of a problem in order to cause a transformation in the situation. That transformation relied on communicating with people in order to enroll them in a solution, not coerce them into change.

The program had 6 weeks between two sessions in order for participants to work on a specific business problem and report back to the group on what they had achieved. The most frequent comment heard in the reports was, “I thought the problem was X, but it really was me!”

The Vital Leadership Advantage will take place at Notre Dame again this year, starting in March. For more information on the program, here is a link: Vital Leadership Advantage.

2 thoughts on “A Different Take on Leadership

  1. Christina Haxton


    It is refreshing to see how the definition of leadership is transforming from “skills” CEO’s “use” to get the job done, to leadership about bringing who we are as leaders into what we do to as leaders, and the ongoing definition of ourselves and our purpose, and as such the positive change we have the responsibility for making in our organization.

    Exceptional leaders begin by answering the question “Who am I?” Sustainable leaders are built to last, who invest in developing others and recognize the effect of who they are on the people who surround them … and beyond.

    Sustainable leaders recognize the “ripple effect” of their actions. When you throw a rock into a pond … the ripples go across the top of the water, down to the bottom and reverberate back to continually define that leader going forward.

    Effective leaders take responsibility for how they show up and the ripples they make.

    Thank you for posting!

    Christina Haxton, MA
    Executive Coaching & Leadership Development
    Sustainable Leadership, Inc.

  2. Kevin,

    The Vital Leadership Advantage sounds like an interesting program.

    To be a leader requires followers. The question that I have always found missing among someone in a leadership role is, why should someone follow you or me? It sounds like the program made you reflect on what you “believe” and how best to communicate that “belief.” To be honest, that is why people follow. They follow someone who has a belief that they are comfortable aligning themselves. I believe that is why you found ”that transformation relied on communicating with people in order to enroll them in a solution, not coerce them into change.”

    Leaders are born and so it goes that everyone is born. Thus everyone has the capacity to lead. Their capability is a different conversation. The point is that leaders articulate their conscious and un-conscious beliefs. Followers pay attention. As you look around an organization, whom are people really following? Is it those in an assigned leadership role or is it the person on the fringe? Review each type of leader to reflect on their words and actions. What are they really portraying as their belief? Consider those you are following and/or have followed and really consider why. Also, as you look at an organization, why are people there? Is it the leadership, the “brand promise” of the organization, both or someone else?

    Christina made a comment that “effective leaders take responsibility for how they show up and the ripples they make.” While I believe this statement to be true, my belief is founded on a more fundamental premise. Leaders naturally show up because of what they believe and the ripples be damned. If someone wants to follow their belief, the effective leaders take responsibility for them.

    Thank you for posting.

    Henry Kahl

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