Preface:

 

I’m a questioner. I bring curiosity to this concept of leadership. This is the written beginning of my search for a deeper understanding of what it means to be a leader and to lead.

Context:

 

I now understand why the word leadership and I are not besties.

We (society) don’t have a shared understanding of what the word means!

So I asked my friend, Lara Eastburn, who is my favourite word nerd (and has her PhD in linguistics!), to unpack the etymology and history of the word leader and leadership.

Lara talks about ‘coat hanger’ words. Leadership is one of them.

They are more than just a word. They are our beliefs, desires, judgements, theories, and experiences, all hung on a coat hanger. We use this coat hanger, thinking we can create shared understanding – which often leads to disappointment due to unexpressed expectations. Because surely what I hung on my coat hanger is what you hung on yours?

Let’s start here:

 

In the circuitous path language takes, the evolution of the word leader and its use started as a solely English word; there is no footprint of any other languages or other IE roots.

The word leader originates in 825 AD from the Old English word: leodan – to grow or come out of the ground.

(Other languages may have words that are similar to the English word leader but either have a unique footprint or stem from the Old English. For example, in Spanish the word is líder, which originates from the same Old English root: leodan. Sorry not sorry.)

Despite its early beginnings, the word leader didn’t come into regular use until the mid 1800’s. Think about it. Back in the day, there were god’s (for planting, harvesting, living!) and then there was God (religious understanding of moral human order), and then there were Kings and Queens (ruling and making decisions for the populace).

And then as the divine rights of gods and royalty began to wane, people began looking for a new word to describe the idea of ruling/leadership. For example, in 1582, a new word emerged: headship. Headship denotes a significant (supremely hierarchical) separation between leader & follower.

BUT there wasn’t a concrete use or understanding of what a leader meant, yet.

Let’s skip to the good stuff:

 

In 1849, on the 1000th anniversary of King Alfred’s birth* the English became preoccupied with what is peculiarly English & established a historical basis for English superiority.

* Side note: King Alfred is credited with being the English ‘leader’ who chose which latin texts would get translated into Old English – essentially defining what the English people would learn about historically and create the foundation of their understanding of themselves as a nation.

 

The English determined that they were uniquely suited to govern by virtue of their love of liberty tempered by respect for order. A history/narrative is written in which the English have always been a victorious and virtuous people which results in the belief that they have an inherent talent for governing or in this case, leading.

Leadership enters the lexical record amongst this fervour for establishing an English heritage.

It is an origin story for a culture unsure about its origins. It reflects the importance of a leader for a society in search of a national identity. A belief in an inherent talent for governing becomes a part of the English psyche.

The word leader charts the evolution of the idea in Anglo-Saxon culture of who is in charge as divine right wanes – from individual heroes (King Alfred), then statesmen & politicians, to the involvement of common folk in the governing process (democracy) to (an emerging concept of) leadership by community.

Leadership seems an almost exclusive preoccupation of cultures with Anglo-Saxon heritage.

Modern Leadership is a wholly 20th century concept related to the democratization of Western society. The word leadership fills a need for a new role in the 20th century that was not satisfied by existing vocabulary.

Fast forward to today:

 

There are approximately four books on the topic of leadership published each day in North America!

Change management and leadership training is regularly applied and yet there are many statistics out there that these approaches can fail upwards of 85% of the time.

We desperately want change, but without the hassle of adapting it ourselves. Or acknowledging that perhaps we have romanticized* the idea of leadership?

*Or maybe, just maybe, we don’t agree with the behaviours we see leaders exhibiting and we silently blame them for ‘failing’ when our shared understanding of the word may be flawed? Damn, the coat hanger word strikes again!

Or that we’ve spent enough time looking at other leaders and it may be time to start looking inwards? And maybe, just maybe, we can get curious about what we want out of a leader and try it on for size?

Let’s stop here:

 

It makes so much sense to me now why the word leadership and I aren’t besties: this battle of interpretation of what makes a leader, who is a leader, what are the qualities of a leader, is one that is tied to English colonization and who gets the power to make the rules.

That and it is a philosophical concept; one in which we can co-create a meaning that is worthy of its roots – to grow.

And, I believe that we all have the power to grow, create a shared meaning of the word leadership, and exhibit the behaviours we want to see. Shall we go exploring together to create a shared meaning of that for ourselves?

CREDIT:

This piece would not be what it is without Lara Eastburn’s genius. You will find her research, ideas and words interspersed throughout. This does not mean that she endorses or agrees with everything that I have written here (including my interpretation of what a coat hanger word means to me 🤷🏼‍♀️).  She challenges and stretches my thinking and I am so grateful for her.

A shout out to my friend’s Eva Fernandez & Valerie Louis for their editorial support. You make my heart sing and stimulate my brain. Thank you!

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