It is according to an outfit that conducts $60 half-day seminars all over the country for high school band members that occupy positions of leadership in their bands. The proclamation that “leadership is a verb…it demands action” came on a brochure touting the value of their leadership seminars that also conveniently explains how to register and pay the seminar fee. Notice of the seminar and how to download the registration brochure came in an e-mail sent from my son’s high school band director that explained he wanted all band members occupying positions of leadership in the band to attend. My first instinct was to wonder how much of a cut he or the band gets from the seminar fee. If all those he identified as occupying a position of leadership, i.e., section leaders for each of the instrumental sections, color guard leaders, dancing team leaders, and of course, drum majors and anyone that wished to have a chance at becoming a drum major in the future, the band would have about thirty attendees, which would translate to roughly two thousand dollars. And this is for my son’s band only. The leadership ranks of other bands around the area were also invited to attend. For four hours of work, the “doctor” (of what, leadership?) conducting the seminar would rake in several thousand dollars. Yet, not only does he apparently not know much about the English language, neither does he know anything about leadership, either of which is obvious from the pronouncement on the cover of his brochure.
Obviously the word “leadership” is not a verb. The American Heritage Dictionary, fourth edition, describes leadership as a noun defined as “The position or office of a leader; capacity or ability to lead; a group of leaders, or guidance, direction.” By dint of their silly proclamation, I knew, right off the bat that this seminar was just a steaming pile of bullshit aimed at indoctrination, not education. Yet it was officially endorsed by the school’s representative as something a select few of the kids very nearly must attend, and that others aspiring to leadership roles ought to attend. A trifle of exclusivity, as is implied by either being or becoming, a leader, can go a long way in motivating status-besotted students and parents to spare no expense in ensuring that a leadership role is achieved.
The entry for “lead” in the dictionary, the root word of leadership, is, in fact, a verb; American Heritage provides over twenty different definitions, but the seminar hacks were obviously referring to leadership in the context of an organization. But is leadership in an organization so imbued with activity that it might as well be considered a verb? Not when done properly, it isn’t.
Understanding organizational leadership requires understanding organizations. Organizations are collections of organisms cooperating to achieve some common purpose. The bodies of multicellular organisms (humans, trees, butterflies) could be considered the base organizational model; essentially they are a collection of cells, each with a clearly-defined role within the “organization”, cooperating with each other to ensure the organism survives long enough that the genetic code each shares in common with the other survives into the next generation. What comprises the “leadership” of the organization that is a multicellular organism? There is none, except the shared DNA. No one cell or group of cells is tasked with keeping the organism alive, nor, in a healthy organism, is allowed to subvert the organism’s purposes for its own ends. There is no need for leadership because each cell of the organism “thinks” like all the others. Each cell knows and abides by the organism’s instructions for survival like every good revolutionary peasant in China carried Mao’s Little Red Book during the Cultural Revolution.
In fact, a multicellular organism is perhaps the only extant example of pure communism to be found, not needing, like the human societies that attempted to organize as communist (and miserably failed), the glue of a “Great Leader” like Mao, Stalin, Castro or Kim to keep the cells (i.e., the individuals and households within them) focused on the needs of the greater organism, individual desires and needs be damned. Perhaps the only social organizations approaching the communistic ideal aren’t human at all, but are the super-organisms of the social insects. Individual ants in a colony exist solely to serve the colony—they (except the queen and a few males) have no individual capacity for reproduction. The purpose of the ant colony and of the individual ants within it coincide perfectly; their only priority is to see that the colony survives and propagates, and like a multicellular organism, the “leadership” the colony needs for doing so is carried in the DNA of each individual ant. Worker ants needn’t go to see the queen for instructions on where to spend that day foraging for food. They instinctively know what needs to be done, and how to do it, to ensure the colony’s survival. There is no leader, great or otherwise.
It is only when the priorities of the organization conflict with the priorities of the individuals comprising it that leadership approaches a verb, demanding incessant action. The greater is the tension between individual and organizational priorities, the greater is the need for proactive “leadership”, so totalitarian societies that have little or no concern for the welfare of individuals within them, necessarily require active, “verbal” leadership to oppress and suppress the wants and needs of the individuals within them. I doubt the seminar organizer quite understand how repugnantly such “leadership… demand[ing] action” has played on history’s stages.
Leadership requires there be a purpose, or objective, to which an organization is led; and the purpose of an organization is determined by the level at which survival and propagation is ensured. Thus, the purpose of ants within an ant colony is the survival and propagation of the colony; no individual ant can survive alone (though no leadership is necessary for the ant to know what to do in ensuring the colony’s survival). But the long-term purpose of a human organization is derived from the individuals comprising it; in the human animal, survival and propagation is accomplished at the individual level. No human organization will long survive that strays from its necessary purpose of aiding in the survival and propagation needs of the individuals comprising it. It is why totalitarian societies are inherently unstable, whereas democracies generally are not.
Leadership in a human organization, properly done, requires streamlining the organization’s priorities to those of the individuals comprising it. Once the individuals and organization are on the same page on priorities, there is very little left for a leader to do except step back and let the individuals busy themselves with the tasks they are motivated to accomplish which, coincidentally, are the same ones as the organization needs for them to accomplish.
It’s doubtful anyone thinking leadership is a verb would quite grasp the idea that the best leader is the one that actively leads the least, just as the best government is the one that governs least.
Human organizations, deriving their existence and survival from enhancing, in some way, the survival and propagation success of the individuals comprising them, still tend to develop their own survival and propagation imperatives. This artifice typically occurs when the organization’s original purpose is fulfilled and the organization’s leaders wish to see it continue nonetheless, or when the organization’s leadership actively subverts to its own survival prerogatives the organization’s resources. In either situation, the organization becomes unstable. Human organizations derive their purpose from enhancing the survival and propagation prospects of the individuals comprising them and the further they stray from this animating purpose, the less stable they become, and the more psychopathic and active must their leadership become in attempting to ensure the organization’s continued existence.
Governments were organized, first by clans, then by tribes and nations, and finally just by polyglot cultures, for the primary purpose of providing protection (ironically, in large measure because of the threat posed by other governments). The United States government was certainly no exception. Its main function for its first hundred and fifty years was to provide protection and defense for the colonies and the relentlessly expanding frontier. After the War of 1812, it faced no existential threats, and could focus its energies, with a little Civil War hiccup mid-century, on assisting the expansion across the continent. Then came the Soviet Union’s acquisition of nuclear weapons, finally of the ballistic missile variety. The US government faced again an existential threat. But the threat faded in just a few decades, until eventually evaporating in a miasma of Soviet bureaucratic inefficiency. The organization that was the Soviet Union disintegrated because it no longer enhanced the survival and propagation prospects of the individuals and families within it.
Since leadership of an organization requires organizational purpose—without somewhere to go, there’s nowhere to lead—the fall of the Soviet Union robbed the US government of its primary organizing purpose. The US government no longer had an existential threat to justify its continuing expansion in power and wealth; in fact, with its purpose more or less fulfilled, the US government should have begun declining in power and the amount of wealth and freedoms it claimed from its citizens. Instead, leadership of the active sort favored by the seminar doctor meant that the first President Bush had to find something for the US government to do; invasions of Panama and Iraq, among other actively-led adventures, ensued.
Then the public decided it rather preferred butter to the guns required of imperialistic adventures, and dumped Bush for Clinton. Clinton led just as much as was necessary, which was very little, considering the lack of existential threats for which the government was primarily organized to protect against. Clinton even reduced and ultimately eliminated profligate government borrowing that had been justified for decades by the need to protect against the Soviet Union. Clinton resisted, perhaps for the first time in modern human history, the temptation arising from the existential angst suffered by any governmental organization in peacetime to subvert the government’s purpose to his own ends. So far as appropriately inactive leadership goes, Clinton understood that the thing not to do when faced with the fulfillment of an organization’s primary purpose is to invent and contrive purposes. Clinton is the only president since the end of the Cold War that understood much of anything of what it means to be a leader.
The second Bush used a spectacular terrorist attack to vastly, and apparently permanently, transform the government’s mission and purpose from that of defense to active imperialistic expansion, in return for which, he promised the folks back home that the government would do all it could to eliminate their pain, of whatever source. Bush turned government, let alone leadership, into a verb. He was helped along by a Federal Reserve following a similarly activist leadership policy so far as economic performance was concerned. When all that leadership helpfully demanding action caused the economy to implode in 2008, the prescription was to double-down on activist leadership, in the process vastly expanding the power, breadth, depth and importance of the federal government in every realm.
Now Obama represents the ultimate expression of leadership demanding action, contriving multivariate new purposes for the organization which he leads; never minding the costs, nor concerned with the deleterious impact, undertaking all the new obligations might have on the organization’s core mission. His activist leadership, taken to its logical end, would ultimately destroy the continued viability of the US government in its present configuration to meet its raison d’etre of protection. It’s not clear whether his strategy is the result of deliberate calculations, or is the unwitting actions of a fool.
Indeed, the notion that leadership is a verb…that demands action is a source of a great many leadership hijinks and failures, imposing untold costs on organizations whose leaders are afflicted with the peculiar psychosis. Leadership is neither linguistically nor practically a verb. It is more art than science. Sometimes it requires action, but mostly it requires humility, wisdom and understanding, with a servant’s heart in its application. I told my son he could skip the seminar. He gets enough indoctrination in how to achieve success, always defined as gaining in status amongst his peers, which often translates into finding ways to actively lead them, whether leadership is needed or not. Properly done, leading an organization means subordinating one’s own priorities for those of the organization. It’s doubtful he’d gain any helpful insights along those lines in a seminar proclaiming that leadership is a verb.