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Job descriptions need to be clear about ‘leadership’

By Connell Fanning and Assumpta O’Kane

One of the most overworked requirements in job descriptions is that of ‘leadership’. Such descriptions rarely state, however, exactly what ‘leadership’ means. Instead, they often use the term for roles that are essentially ‘headships’. Examples include ‘head of operations’, ‘head of supply chain’, or ‘head of team’.

Similarly, we can point to any number of other words for which the label ‘leadership’ is casually used. For instance, if we ask someone what they mean by ‘leadership’, we are likely to get something like ‘showing initiative’.

We can easily show how pervasive the problem is by applying ‘The Leadership Clarity Test’:

If alternative words, such as ‘head’, ‘director’, ‘chief’, ‘president’, or ‘supervisor’, can be substituted for ‘leader’ – as in titles like ‘lead engineer’, ‘party leader’, ‘team leader’ –

and if the word substituted is not only a correct word but is also descriptively more accurate of the role,

then the casual use of ‘leader’ is misleading for thinking clearly about ‘leadership’ and for drawing correct conclusions about performance because it lacks the required precision for thinking. (The same principle would apply to the terms ‘lead’ and ‘leadership’.)

An example

It is telling that few job ads articulate clearly what they are demanding under ‘leadership’. We can illustrate this with the example of an advertisement for a senior managerial position in a university institution.

The description of the post uses cliched cut-and-paste phrases about ‘leadership’ qualities (here the post’s title is represented by X):  significant demonstrable X leadership and transformation experience for an organisation of scale and complexity’; …above all, leadership; demonstrate…leadership experience; a strong, inspirational leader; responsible for leading; …customer focused X leader; to lead; …devise and support effective leadership initiatives; and evidence of leadership and commitment.

We asked the executive nominated as the ad’s contact person what criteria would they use to assess ‘leadership’. This elicited the following:

‘The advertisement says that applicants must have significant demonstrable X leadership and transformation experience for an organisation of scale and complexity….This means that candidates must be able to demonstrate that they have led a X department or an X team in a large entity.’

The circularity will be apparent. One is left pondering what applicants will make of this vagueness and how a selection board will make a recommendation on foot of this requirement for ‘leadership’. 

A quick application of our ‘Clarity Test’ shows that the words ‘headship’ and ‘head’ could have achieved clarity of communication to potential candidates.

Even in a classic work like Gardner’s On Leadership, we can replace ‘leader’ and ‘leadership’ with ‘head’ and ‘headship’, or even just with ‘people’ or titles like CEO, president, etc., on almost any page of the book.

Why is this important?

A confusion

Using ‘leadership’ in job descriptions in an unthinking and unspecified way is a symptom of a confusion that has important implications for ’leadership’ and ‘management’. Above all it has led to an unfortunate downgrading of the standing of ‘management’ in the eyes of businesspeople, with serious consequences for good management.

As we argue in The Leadership Mind, we must always make a clear distinction between ‘leadership’ and ‘management’. There is a fundamental difference in their natures, which requires us to think about each in different ways.

It is much more than simply a case of how we use words. Only by distinguishing clearly between the two can we move towards workable and sustainable definitions of both ‘leadership’ and ‘management’. Such definitions have been lacking in thinking about business, a void that we have sought to fill in our book.

This raises the practical question, why not use ‘headship’ when that is what is meant, and use ‘leadership’ for something meaningful?

Applying our ‘Clarity Test’ will demand more accuracy in thinking and expression, including about those inflated job descriptions now cluttering thinking in recruitment, performance management, and other areas. It will eliminate much confusion in statements and claims. We suggest that this approach can be transformational when it comes to making key appointments and identifying people for the future.

If, however, employers demand ‘leadership’, the decent thing is to state clearly what they expect when selecting people.  A corollary of that is that people doing the selecting have their thinking clear about ‘leadership’ and are not just using an empty label or working with a cliché, which is a substitute for thinking. Another is that candidates at interview should seek clarification of what prospective employers mean by using the term ‘leadership’ as the least that should be available for deciding whether to join an organisation.