dead bird background in nature, isolated dead bird on white.My close B-school buddy, Lori, and I have been having a debate about leadership.

She thinks the word has gone flat. I, however, have been trying to hang on – hoping that I can salvage it on my website to describe my work of the past twenty-five years and what I envision going forward.

Has the life gone out of the word?

Has it suffered the same fate as “management,” a word that sounds moribund – even knowing that good management is key to effective organizations.

Think about it: have you ever heard a 6 year old or 12 year old run home and say, “Mommy, Daddy, I want to be a manager!!!”

Not likely. It’s dated. What’s cool today is the word “entrepreneur”, with all the baby “preneurs” that are running to catch up:

Author-preneurs, E-preneurs, Eco-preneurs, Info-preneurs, Intra-preneurs, Mini-preneurs, Solo-preneurs, U-preneurs, Wisdom-preneurs (New ones hatch every day!)

News of the “preneurs” fills blogs and podcasts everywhere. After all, “entrepreneur” fits the American dream – you have an idea, are willing to go for it, take a few risks, and hopefully hit the jackpot, all the while staying true to who you are.

Now that’s sexy, but leadership?

I decided to research the fate of the word “leadership” with a comprehensive survey of four millennials.

The data texted back to me was, well, interesting:

# 1 “Well, I can’t claim to come close to speaking for my generation, but I will admit that the word is often associated with bland, sanitized corporate packaging of ideas. I doubt it’ll aggressively repel people or anything, but you run the (slightly ironic) risk of fading into the background.

#2 and #3 “After a brief poll, we are pretty okay with “leadership” and actively pro “leader”. But we also don’t feel “leadership” is very powerful or engaging; it’s a little bit of, say, an overused buzzword in politics, or resumes/job interviews, so also has a somewhat empty ring because of that overuse. Also something people use to smooth things over and generalize or obscure things…it doesn’t necessarily connote a good leader. Not sure what word is better, and leadership definitely isn’t dated, but it is overused and, as such, empty.”

#4 “Leadership is a word I hear pretty often and have positive associations with. Do you have an alternative?”

Alas, my study was inconclusive. (Perhaps my sampling approach of texting family members was flawed?)

When you feel it

The night of my sampling experiment, I went to the retirement dinner of a colleague, Ann, from my university teaching days. Former mentees, students, and faculty colleagues packed the room to celebrate her many contributions. We sat teary-eyed, listening to her graduates, from all walks of life, including a group from the Tulalip Tribes, talk about how she changed their lives.  We learned how she expressed her deep commitments to social justice and diversity throughout her career. In her closing talk, I felt stirred while remembering the best of the values and ideals that had pulled me into adult education many years ago.

I doubt that Anne worried much how to be a leader. It was enough to just concentrate on living her values, taking the steps she knew were hers to make, nurturing her inner life, and balancing all the crazy forces and demands that come with running a life.

But when you’re in the presence of leadership, you feel it.

And you get bigger. I left thinking there was hope for the world – and for the word.

Re-reading Parker PalmerScreen Shot 2015-10-28 at 3.16.13 PM

In her closing remarks, Ann referenced my favorite author on leadership, the educator/ philosopher Parker Palmer, so the next day I went searching for inspiration in his words. Once upon a time, his article,  Leading from Within, was required reading in my courses. It moves me still.

Parker never pontificates. But I dare you not to be moved by his books, which he writes with a raw honesty, as he takes you into the spirit of the word.

“Leadership” is a concept we often resist. It seems immodest, even self-aggrandizing, to think of ourselves as leaders. But if it is true that we are made for community, then leadership is everyone’s vocation, and it can be an evasion to insist that it is not. When we live in the close-knit ecosystem called community, everyone follows and everyone leads.”

Parker understands the inner side of leadership with its light and dark shadows.  I trust how he uses the word.

Going to the source

I decided to use a practice I’ve been experimenting with recently – a bit out there, perhaps, but very useful to me. I just asked Leadership if it had anything to say to me. And then I listened:

I’ve been used as a work horse for so many people’s ambitions – so if you ask, whether I am tired, Yes, I am.

I still have a job to do – just look at the world – but I wish you all would free me up to do my work — it’s really not about solo performers any more, it’s about each of you realizing the unique tasks that are set before you and accomplishing them with love, with energy, and with commitment not to just yourselves but to each other and the common good.”

Yes you can keep teaching skills that help good people accomplish good things. But know this: I am not some THING, [some concept/some word] – – I am a force.

If, from time to time, you need courage, I can be there for you. I can share examples that will inspire you, and I can help you trust in your own innate goodness and capacity. Or, I can open your eyes to the very next thing that needs to be done.

And as for you, Sally – keep opening people’s eyes to their innate goodness as you open yours – and point it out so that they can receive the world – not as a place that is damaged or a place that needs to be corrected but as a place that needs the help and light filled investment of each one of us.

We cannot assure anything about the future but in our collective listening – and our commitment to goodness, we can be a positive force to see what needs to be done and then take the next step and the next step and the next step.”

Maybe the word leadership isn’t hot.

But Lori and I have reached a resolve: it’s time to reclaim it and make it ours.