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Why do we care about leadership?

By Geoff Aigner - posted Friday, 23 November 2012

This might sound like a strange question to ask, let alone answer, as the director of a leadership centre.

One of the things that we teach is that to lead often means to be able to lead with a question. A good question forces a system to do some work.

So I will pose it again: "Why do we care about leadership?"


Clearly we do care about the word 'leadership' even if we don't understand why.

We know also that many others care as well. Look at the centres of business and government and you can see many people care deeply about leadership-to get it, to keep it or get someone else to do something with it. You may say that they care about a different type of 'leadership' than us: an outdated, un-useful and dying idea. That we are interested in making a difference and they are more interested in power and serving themselves. But I am not so sure there is such a clear distinction between us.

I am not so sure that there are clearly good and bad reasons for caring about leadership. Because what we all share is that, while we are so enticed by the idea of leadership, we do it at the same time as being disappointed and exasperated by it. I think that's intriguing. If we are all so disenchanted by leadership, why do we also follow it, ask for it and care so much about it? Why do we, despite seemingly being disappointed so many times, still find ways of building up our hopes again?

Some would say that there is a simple answer to this. That we are stupid and have short memories. And that is something we also share.

I think that is too easy an answer and misses something deeper.

I think what we share is a high dream about leadership which gets sucked into a low fantasy. A fantasy where we mistake power, control and personal advancement as the end and not just the tools. We put the toolbox in front of our faces and forget that it should be at our side. Perhaps because the dream is so hard to hold … and so bold.


So what is this dream? The dream is that by leadership is that we can be useful, make progress and leave things better than we found them; that we can have the greatest benefit for the most people for the longest time.

This is why I believe we care about leadership. Those who want it and those who complain about it.

I think caring about leadership is inextricably linked to being human. We are not willing to just accept how things are. We don't just accept how power is held, who holds it, how it is used and for what purpose. We don't just struggle for power and dominance as humans, we also struggle to do something useful with it. And we are not content with the status quo. We are compelled to move forward and to make progress. But we struggle to do that at the same as caring for each other.

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This is an edited version of a speech to the Sydney Leadership Program graduation last night.

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About the Author

Geoff Aigner is director of The Benevolent Society’s leadership centre, Social Leadership Australia. His book Leadership Beyond Good Intentions is published by Allen & Unwin.

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