The root of leadership

The etymological root of leadership, lead and leader

root of leadership Men have no monopoly on leadership skills - Philadelphia News

Leadership is as old as the hills but the actual etymology of the word is modern – the first known use of it dates back to 1821 when leader was combined with the suffix “ship” denoting position (as in the position of a leader). The word leader has an older pedigree – from the Old English lædere, “one who leads”, agent noun from lædan, ”to guide, bring forth”. Lead or leader does not have a Latin or Greek derivation. The closest word in antiquity relating to leadership is the Latin word ducere “to lead, consider, regard” and interestingly in modern Romanian language the word for leading and leadership is conducere.

When one studies the etymology of the word lead, leader and leadership and its ancient relative Ducere, one can begin to appreciate why there is so much complexity and variance in our modern understanding of what leaders do and what leadership is. The term has so many meanings: direction, guidance, transformation, facilitation, orchestration, servitude and more; and each of these separate definitions has developed into distinctive behavioural brands of leadership (directive, transformative, facilitative, leader as steward, servant leader and so on).

Personally, I am attached to the old-English word lædan and its close Indo-European Germanic relative laidjan (“to travel”) because, for me, it encapsulates modern leadership. As the business landscape has shifted from industrial to informational, leadership behaviours have needed to shift away from controlling people and processes. This has promoted a shift to a more enabling (“bringing forth”) style of leadership. The key to such effective enablement is cultivating self-awareness, and understanding the impact your behaviour is having on those around you. It was Joe Jaworski who said, “Before you can lead others… you have to discover yourself “ and self-discovery, the ability to travel (laidjan) inwardly, is a critical leadership quality in the information and digital age.

Richard Kelly PhD.
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