As James MacGregor Burns taught in his classic 1978 text, Leadership, the practice of leadership is not the same as the exercise of power. If I put a loaded gun to your head, I can get you to do things you might not otherwise do, but I’ve not practiced leadership; I’ve exercised power.
True leadership only exists if people follow when they have the freedom not to. (emphasis added).
Jim Collins, Good to Great and the Social Sectors: Why Business Thinking is Not the Answer (A Monograph to Accompany Good to Great)
In Collin’s monograph Good to Great and the Social Sectors, he describes the leadership effectiveness of Frances Hasselbein, CEO of the Girl Scouts of the USA. When asked what it was like to be at the top of such a large organization, she gave a tutorial, complete with object lessons. She rearranged items on a dining table:
Creating a set of concentric circles radiating outward. Hasselbein pointed to a glass in the middle of the table. “I’m here,” she said.
I teach it this way to my speech students: after explaining that “persuasion is changing someone’s mind, attitude, or behavior,” I remind them that seldom is full persuasion accomplished with any one single speech.
And then I teach/remind them that we can come close to making anyone do anything – all we have to do is hold their head underwater (it might take the help of the Cowboys’ offensive line to pull that off) until the person is willing to do what we demand. But, that is coercion, not persuasion.
Persuasion is all about getting other folks to head in the direction we want to take them/lead them when they have the absolute freedom to say no.
(Consider the recent execution of leaders in North Korea. I bet the other leaders are fully on board at this point. But there is apparently not much freedom to say no in that circumstance).
And when a person can say no, it takes pretty careful strategies of explaining, asking, training, educating, lobbying, appealing, to get things moving in a common direction. And getting good at this is no easy feat!
In other words, a person who can genuinely persuade others — others with the freedom to say no — deserves the title of leader.