The Myth that Leadership is Personal

It is time to end the myth that leadership is a personal phenomenon. It’s not. Sorry, but leadership is a relationship that takes at least two. Leadership requires a person engaged in leading and the person(s) being engaged. By “engaged in leading”, I mean speaking for something that does not currently exist. Such speaking may be “for” something that could exist or happen, such as when President John Kennedy proposed the U.S., by the end of the 1960’s, land a man on the moon and return him safely to Earth. Or, such speaking may be “against” something that currently exists or happens, such as when President Trump called for the end of illegal immigration into the U.S. The intent of such speaking is to garner “followers”, people who are enrolled in what is being said and support, if not work for it, to happen.

Traditional approaches to leadership propose that whether or not someone is – or can be – a leader, especially an effective leader, relies on their personal qualities, characteristics, or attributes, e.g., their personality. For example, some people believe you need charisma to be a leader. Others consider that people who provide structure and direction make good leaders, whereas others think people need to be attentive to and considerate of those they seek to lead. Still others feel that anyone can be a leader depending on the situation.

In all of these approaches, it is assumed that whether someone is or can be an effective leader will depend on them individually and has little or nothing to do with those they seek to lead. Such an assumption ignores the fact that leadership takes two: someone to propose goals and to follow up on them, and someone who resonates with what is in both of those communications. In a very real sense, leadership is like Velcro. You need two compatible pieces for Velcro to work, the hooks and the loops.

We are all familiar with the idea that food is attractive to someone who is hungry, though not to someone who is over-full. If we come across someone who is hungry and we speak about food, chances are they will resonate with what we say, though even then it will have to be attractive to them. If we talk about food they find unappealing, they will likely turn off to what we are saying no matter how pleasantly we say it. It is the listener, therefore, who determines if what a leader says is attractive enough to take action, not the speaker.

Something someone says is only “attractive” if the one listening has a corresponding “active” disposition regarding the subject. And, unless the speaker actually knows what is “active” for the listener, what they say may or may not resonate with the listener. When a political candidate holds a rally for supporters, they can be reasonably sure that their supporters are “active” for what is going to be said, and that those supporters will find what is said “attractive”. This is how the supporters create and reinforce the candidate, and how the candidate reassures their supporters.

Leadership is not a personal trait, it is relational. If leadership were truly personal, based only on the qualities, characteristics, or attributes of the speaker, then why isn’t that person a leader everywhere? The observation that no one is a leader everywhere, and that some people are turned off by the very person who turns on others, suggests that leadership is more like Velcro.


While a variety of sources have influenced me regarding this article, I make special mention of Landmark Worldwide and Werner Erhard whose work and programs have informed and shaped my thinking.