The Time Has Come to Ditch the Concept of Leadership

You probably heard about Godwin’s law that “as an online discussion grows longer, the probability of a comparison involving Nazis or Hitler approaches one”. Along the same line of reasoning, in nursing the probability that any discussion over ten sentences long will include the term leadership is very close to one.

But contrarily to Godwin’s Law, the Nursing Leadership Law rests on a positive association. In nursing, leadership is all that is good. You can’t go wrong with it. If it’s nursing-related and it’s good, then you can confidently label it as ‘leadership’: clinical leadership, system leadership, collective leadership, there certainly is some kind of leadership that fits the bill. Over the last two decades, the term ‘leadership’ has been conceptually tortured to such an extent that it has morphed into an absolute weasel word. It can mean almost anything-or its contrary-depending on how one decides to interpret it. No need to articulate one’s idea or to sharpen one’s understanding of a challenge, just pour a generous dose of the term leadership over your discourse and the job is done. As such, ‘leadership’ has become intellectual snake-oil.

Most nurses won’t bother specifying their in-use definition of ‘leadership’, but it might be even more troubling when they do. A recently published editorial on OIIQ’s website (OIIQ being Quebec’s College of Nurses) offers the following definition:

Leadership is:

  1. the capacity to influence others for aims one finds important;
  2.  the capacity to modify a given situation and bring about change and
  3. the power to transform” (our translation).

So, let’s take a closer look. The first point is almost word for word the formal definition of the concept of power, with the subtle twist that it is limited to ‘power used for aims one finds important.’ Although not stated explicitly, the second point implicitly contains the same implication that leadership is limited to “desirable” and “good” change (unless you really believe this guy is a great clinical leader). As for the third point-besides being a four-word tautology, it doesn’t add much to the first two.

The goal isn’t to pick on this particular definition in itself, but as it is clearer than most it makes it easier to grasp what “leadership” really is about. When one summarizes the definition above, leadership is the exercise of power in order to do good. There isn’t anything wrong with efforts to do good. However, nothing could be more value laden and subjective than this idea. What is good? For whom? Why? And if the achievement of “good” rests on nurses’ passive obedience, does that make passive obedience a form of leadership? (Hint: it seems that, at least for some, it does). Joking aside, the in-use definition of leadership in nursing is, from the ground-up, built on the implicit assumption of “proper” behaviour. Leadership is acting according to socially structured expectations related to the good and bad, the proper and the improper, the nurse-like and non-nurse-like, etc. As such, in nursing, ‘leadership’ has morphed into an ever-present but underhanded way of calling for nurses to conform themselves to socially sanctioned behaviours and goals.

The initial meaning of leadership as “the action of leading a group of people or an organization” has been buried under such a colossal pile of twisted interpretations and (re)definitions that it can’t be revived. On the other hand, the current mainstream understanding of the term, as we noted above, carries a deeply troubling implicit expectation of conformity. In this context we believe that the term leadership has overpassed its conceptual usefulness and should be put to rest.

We will remember a term initially used mostly to describe authoritarian leaders from the mid-20th century and who, despite this unforgiving upbringing, made it into the mainstream. However, the story of leadership soon turned dark again when it was appropriated by entitled opportunists, tortured into emptiness and mass-marketed as conceptual snake oil. May ‘leadership’ rest in peace.