Like in the Indian folktale The Six Blind Men and the Elephant, where each man touches a different part of an elephant and comes up with a different description of what an elephant is, there are many definitions of leadership and descriptions of what makes one a great leader.
On any given day, you can scroll through your LinkedIn newsfeed and find various different metaphors for leadership and a recipe for becoming a great leader based on that particular construct.
The most common metaphors that I have come across tend to fall into three categories:
- The Leader as military general– the emphasis here is on devising the right strategy vs. the competition and then driving the execution of that strategy with efficient processes and disciplined practices.
- The Leader as star athlete– here leadership is viewed as a basket of must-have competencies. The more of these key competencies a given leader possesses and the greater the degree of mastery of them they exert, then the stronger leader he/she is - much like a "five-tool" player in baseball.
- The Leader as social worker– in the construct of this metaphor, the leader is focused on the needs of the people in the organization. The strong leader is the one that effectively develops and nurtures individuals and is there primarily to enable them.
And just like in the folktale, each of these has something to offer a view of leadership. However, each alone is insufficient to define the nature of leadership. The critical defect common to all of them I believe, is the exclusive focus on the leader. Leadership is a practical art and it is impossible to look at the qualities of a leader without addressing the particular situation and environment in which they must lead. Thus, none of the metaphors above can adequately explain why the same leader may be a stunning success in one role be recruited to another, and fail miserably. The same person would have the same strategic ability, the same set of competencies, and the same nurturing traits in both circumstances.
I propose there is a better metaphor for leaders, The Leader as Artisan. An artisan is defined as a person skilled in an applied art. Someone who produces high quality, distinctive products, in small quantities, usually by hand.
I believe this metaphor suits a leader well. The notion of “high quality” places the emphasis where it should be, not on the leaders themselves, but on the organizations that they shape. The qualities of being “distinctive” and produced in “small quantities” realistically reflect the situational nature of leadership. There are no cookie-cutter situations. And finally, “by hand” highlights the importance of a leader being hands-on and close to the activity of the organization.
Adopting the Artisan as metaphor for the leader will get us closer to the whole elephant. It will help foster an appreciation for the situational dynamics at play in organizations and move us beyond narrow, paint-by-number solutions.
Tom is the founder of Artisanal Leadership LLC, a boutique consulting effort that engages and activates organizations by working with leaders to shape healthy and balanced operating environments. He is the creator of the SPACE™ framework of leadership and organizational effectiveness and has had more than twenty-five years’ experience, working with CEOs and senior executives to successfully execute strategy and achieve results. Prior to launching Artisanal Leadership, Tom was a Senior Partner in several consulting firms, as well as holding such C-Suite and Senior Executive corporate roles as Chief Human Resource Officer, Senior Vice President of Organizational Change & Leadership, and Chief Learning Officer. Additionally, he has served on the coaching faculty for the Stanford University International Executive Residency Program.