What is a Leader? Who is a Leader?

Leadership is defined in countless different ways.  Accordingly, there is no widely accepted definition of what leadership is.

The leadership industry, however, equates leadership with something or someone who mostly is good.  Leadership expert Warren Bennis, for example, wrote that “managers are people who do things right and leaders are people who do the right thing.” Somewhat similarly, leadership scholar James MacGregor Burns distinguished a leader from a “power wielder.” “Power wielders,” Burns wrote, “may treat people as things. Leaders may not.” In other words, leaders lead with their followers in mind. They lead to satisfy the motives of their followers.

What, then, are we to make of someone like North Korea’s Kim Jong Un?

  • He embarked on North Korea’s “most violent Party purge in decades.”*
  • He executed two of his father’s seven senior pall bearers.
  • He arranged for the assassination of his estranged half-brother.
  • He threatens the lives and family members of anyone who in any way opposes him.
  • He demands a cult of personality which guarantees that he and he alone – along with his dead father and grandfather – is venerated.
  • He is in total control of everyone and everything North Korean.
  • He impacts American foreign policy to a degree entirely out of proportion with the hermetic, undeveloped country of which he is the head.
  • He has developed a nuclear arsenal with which he regularly threatens each of his neighbors and the world’s leading military power.

It’s true: Kim Jong Un does not “do the right thing.” It’s true: Kim Jong Un does not lead to “satisfy the motives” of his followers. But is he not, as we generally and sensibly, if somewhat loosely and informally, define the word, a “leader”?

The question is not simply a semantic one. It is of the utmost practical consequence. For if leadership experts and educators continue to exclude from the conversation a leader such as Kim Jong Un, Leadership Studies will remain impoverished as an area of intellectual inquiry. And Leadership Development will be deprived of the pragmatism necessary to its real as opposed to imagined success.

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*Evan Osnos, “Letter from Pyongyang:  On the Brink,” The New Yorker, September 18, 2017.

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