Leaders and Leadership

Mark Gerzon

Originally Published September, 2003; Current Implications section added by Heidi Burgess in April 2017.


MBI MOOS LogoCurrent Implications

When I re-read this essay in May of 2017, I went "wow--this one sure has implications for today!"

First consider Gerzon's discussion of the negative connotations of the word "leader." More...


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I have been using the phrase "conflict transformation" since the late 1980s. I remember that timeframe because it came on the heels of intensive experience in Central America. When I arrived there my teaching vocabulary was filled with the terminology of conflict resolution and management. But I soon found that many of my Latin colleagues had questions, concerns, even suspicions about what such concepts meant.

Their worry was that quick solutions to deep social-political problems would not change things in any significant way. "Conflicts happen for a reason," they would say. "Is this resolution idea just another way to cover up the changes that are really needed?" Their concerns were consistent with my own experience.

The ideas that inform much of my work arise out of the Anabaptist-Mennonite religious framework. This framework emphasizes peace as embedded in justice, the building of right relationships and social structures through a radical respect for human rights, and nonviolence as way of life. In the course of my work in finding constructive responses to violent conflict, I became increasingly convinced that much of what I was doing was seeking constructive change. I recall that by the late 1980s I would talk about this work as a process of transformation.

However, this notion of transformation raised new questions. Despite its problems, the term "resolution" was more well-known and widely accepted in mainstream academic and political circles. "Transformation," on the other hand, was regarded by many as too value-laden, too idealistic, or too "new age." But for me, the term was accurate, scientifically sound, and clear in vision.

Also see the video:
"John Paul Lederach's "Big Picture of Conflict Transformation""
part of the
Conflict Frontiers
Massive Open Online Seminar

What is "Leadership?"

Leadership refers to an extremely wide range of roles that have profound influence on the world. The range is so wide, in fact, that sometimes the term leadership seems to include almost everyone. Indeed, some corporations have adopted the slogan: "Everyone is a leader."

A word which can refer to any person at any level of an organization, in any field, living or dead, who significantly influences others, for good or ill, is so broad as to be of questionable utility. Consequently, as the patriarch of modern leadership studies, James MacGregor Burns, observes: "Leadership is one of the most observed and least understood phenomena on earth"[1]. Another analyst in the field elaborates: "Leadership studies have suffered from a 'lack of a common language.'"[2]

This is why German publishers reacted so ambivalently when yet another book on "leaders" crossed the Atlantic for their consideration. In order to translate it, they were compelled to put the word "fuehrer" once again into print. German publishers were understandably reluctant to invest their hopes in words that had so cruelly betrayed them.

Additional insights into leaders and leadership are offered by several Beyond Intractability project participants.

Although perhaps not so obviously, the Germans' dilemma regarding leadership is shared by the English-speaking world. Although the English word "leader" does not evoke the negative response of its German equivalent, it is nevertheless heavily burdened with more subtle but still dangerous implications.

The English word "leadership" originates in the ancient root leith, which meant "to go forth and die," as in battle. By this definition, those who lead Group A to commit violence against Group B are "leaders." Even if we remove violence from the equation, and even if the "leader" represents some higher cause or value, the word still means the act of mobilizing one group to dominate or vanquish another. Particularly in our shrinking, interconnected world, this is not a particularly inspiring or comprehensive portrait of leadership.

Confronting this vacuum, experts on "leadership" have tried to save this thorny noun with rosy adjectives: "authentic" and "transformational," "ethical" and "entrepreneurial," "democratic" and "collaborative," etc. More perceptive writers, who confronted the vacuum honestly, examined "why leaders can not lead," acknowledged that "nobody's in charge," explored leadership "without easy answers," and addressed the challenge of "reinventing leadership." But none of that changed the fact the word itself, without a modifier, seemed increasingly hollow. ("Don't follow leaders," sang Bob Dylan prophetically. "Watch the parking meters.")

What makes the term "leadership" particularly problematic for the field of conflict studies is that leaders commonly represent their "side." Yet leaders themselves are often one of the biggest obstacles in resolving conflict.

To distinguish between leaders who exacerbate and ameliorate conflict, many scholars have developed useful typologies. John W. Gardner developed the concept of "cross-boundary" leaders who are capable of working effectively.[3] Peter Senge has referred to "advocates for the whole" to highlight some leaders' capacity to work effectively on behalf of all the "parts" in an organization or community.[4] Peggy Dulany and the Synergos Institute have coined the term "bridging" leadership, and have gathered case studies from throughout the world documenting how leaders have effectively linked disparate, and often hostile, constituencies[5]. Other writers influenced by American philosopher Ken Wilber have invented the term "integral" leadership. And William Ury, best known for co-authoring Getting To Yes, has spoken of "third-side leadership" to signify those who have developed the capacity to act as a healing force between opposing "sides."[6]

All of these efforts are attempts to define the positive qualities of leadership. To frame these efforts, let us examine three dimensions of leadership -- sector, scale, and values -- that breed confusion. Doing so will also help to define the different branches of the field of leadership studies and to clarify its relationship to the conflict resolution field.


There are traditionally two major strands of leadership studies: one is the political and public sector, and the other is business and the private sector. "Walk into a bookstore of any size at all and you will see that the materials on leadership in government are located in one place, while the materials on leadership in business are located somewhere else," writes Barbara Kellerman. While formerly this made sense, Kellerman argues "times change." In her view "the differences between public sector types and their private sector counterparts are far outweighed by the similarities -- which make the separation between them nothing if not passed."[7]

Nevertheless, gaps in language and perspective between these two sectors persist. Noting the "suspicion" that exists between the two sectors, Carol Bellamy, director of UNICEF, bluntly acknowledged: "The private sector thinks those of us who have been in the public sector are a little, well, retarded... a little below caliber. They think we're well-meaning ... just not quite up to the job."[8] The stereotypes, however, go both ways because many government sector leaders see the typical business leader as someone who "does not" care, or does not really want to make a difference, who are only there to make money, who really do not want to leave the world a better world. It is changing, but there is "still too much suspicion." Whether the gap between the two is deep (as Bellamy suggests) or narrowing (as Kellerman concludes), it is critical to understanding the contextual nature of leadership. Leaders rise to prominence by following the "rules of the game." As the rules vary, so does the nature of leadership.

This variation is also evident in the "third sector," which has emerged in recent years as a central force in local, national and global affairs. Variously referred to as the "civic" sector or "civil society" (or "independent," "NGO" sector), this third strand has received considerable attention recently because of its unique role in democratic life. Robert Puttnam, among others, has popularized the awareness that leadership in this third sector makes a profound difference in the strength, resilience, and productivity of communities.[9] The literature on "community leadership" often stresses the role that these civic leaders play, which neither business nor government leaders can perform.


This second dimension addresses the dilemma of where, exactly, this elusive quality of "leadership" resides. Is it a character trait that resides within a single individual? ("The senior class president has great leadership potential.") Is it a group phenomenon? ("The other team won because they demonstrated superior leadership.") Does it reside within the structure of an organization or community? ("Consistent leadership training has raised the productivity of their sales department.") Or, even more mysteriously, does it reside in the space between people -- in the relationship?

Confusion about this question of scale exists particularly in cross-cultural conversations about leadership. Western leadership experts tend to view it as an individual characteristic. Elsewhere, in less individualistic cultures, there tends to be more stress on the collaborative, communal nature of leadership.

"More traditional approaches to leadership often talk about individual leaders and their followers, usually within organizations," observes Jacinto Gavino, professor at the Asian Institute of Management in Manila. "But that's not how we will find more just solutions to the deepening social divides around us."[10]

Like many of his colleagues in Asia, Latin America, and Africa, Gavino believes there is an "inordinate emphasis on the self" in the European and North American leadership model. Indeed, in the several dozen in-depth case studies of "bridging leaders" gathered from seven countries, Gavino and his fellow members of the Global Leadership Task Force found that the subjects of their research did not think of themselves as separate individual "leaders" but as part of a leadership "web" or "fabric" or "community."[11]

Recently, within the North American and European perspective on leadership, a significant shift has occurred from emphasis on the individual to a broader focus on the team or community. "Teams outperform individuals acting alone or in larger organizational groupings, especially when performance requires multiple skills, judgments, and experiences," writes one of the foremost analysts of team leadership.[12] "A team inevitably gets better results than a collection of individuals operating within confined job roles and responsibilities. Teams are more flexible than larger organizational groupings because they can be more quickly assembled, deployed, refocused, and disbanded, usually in ways that enhance rather than disrupt more permanent structures and processes."[13]

Other commentators, such as Robert Terry and James MacGregor Burns, describe leadership as a relationship or as a "field" that exists between human beings. "Leadership is an interaction between members of a group," writes Terry. "Leaders are agents of change, persons whose acts affect other people more than other people's acts affect them. Leadership occurs when one group member modifies the motivation or competencies of others in the group."[14] Thus a leader is defined not primarily in terms of qualities they possess, but by the nature of their impact on others.


Perhaps the subtlest, and therefore most elusive, dimension of leadership concerns values. For some, the word "leadership" is a totally value-neutral term. Anyone who influences others is a leader regardless of whether the impact is positive or negative. As educator Parker Palmer has noted, "a leader is someone with the power to project shadow or light" onto the world around him. The result can be a world "as light-filled as heaven or as shadowy as hell."[15]

From this perspective, many different kinds of people, good and evil, loving and tyrannical, can be called a "leader" today. Undeniably, Mahatma Gandhi was a leader. Winston Churchill and Eleanor Roosevelt were leaders. But Hitler was also a leader. So was Stalin. And we certainly have to call Osama bin Laden, Slobodan Milosevic, and Kim Jong Il leaders as well.

Since the same word refers to mass murderers and heroes, visionaries and tyrants, the concept of "leadership" yearns for adjectives. As a naked, unmodified noun, leadership is amoral. First Marx and Freud eviscerated the concept; then Hitler, Stalin, Mao, and Pol Pot dismembered it. For Marx, most so-called "leaders" were blind defenders of their economic interests; for Freud, they were egotistical manipulators of their follower's projections. And for the 20th century's tyrants, "leadership" was a license for genocide.

Unlike those who consider leadership to be a value-neutral term that applies to all who have significant impact on others, another branch of the leadership field considers the word to be inherently value-based. Perhaps more widely than any other author on leadership, Stephen Covey popularized the notion that leadership inherently involves core values, or principles, that inform the leader's actions.

"The most effective leaders are, first models of what I call principle-centered leadership," writes Covey. "They have come to realize that we're all subject to natural laws or governing principles, which operate regardless of our awareness of them or our obedience to them. Our effectiveness is predicated upon alignment with these inviolable principles -- natural laws in the human dimension that are just as real, just as unchanging, as laws such as gravity are in the physical dimension. These principles are woven into the fabric of every civilized society and constitute the roots of every organization that has endured."[16] James MacGregor Burns goes even further. He limits leadership to those situations "when one or more persons engage with others in such a way that leaders and followers raise one another to higher levels of motivation and morality." According to Burns, leadership is not only morally based. It actually lifts morality to a higher plane.[17]

This second, value-based perspective is clearly attractive because it directly addresses the obvious challenge in democratic societies of making a choice between competing leaders. But it also raises a further thorny question: If we define leadership as value-based, which values matter most? Whose values, yours or mine, will be used to define who are leaders, and whose are not?

The ambiguities in these three dimensions of sector, scale, and values, when multiplied by each other, can create a profound confusion of language and logic. The field of conflict resolution can make a contribution to reducing this confusion. Let us briefly explore what this contribution is and why it can make such a vital difference in the leadership field.

The concept of leadership has meaning only within certain specified boundaries. A president of a corporation, who has the status of a "leader" inside its boundaries, loses that standing when he crosses those boundaries. At church or synagogue, he may just be another worshipper; or on the soccer field, just another member of the team. Leadership, in other words, is context-specific.

It is not only common but also inevitable, then, that leaders come into conflict. Because they lead in the interest of the part they represent, they will eventually encounter other leaders who are defending the interests of their part of the whole.

On this level, the field of leadership reaches its limit. Two opposing leaders, approaching their shared frontier with competing agendas and often widely divergent worldviews, cannot find a way out of the conflict without challenging the very concept of leadership itself.

Conflict resolution provides a language and framework for filling this vacuum in leadership studies. For this reason, deeper and more catalytic conversation between the two fields deserves further investment and will certainly produce significant value for both.

An important dividend that will result from this investment will be to clarify the relationship between leadership, conflict resolution, and democratic (or civic) engagement. For many citizens, because of the prevalent models of leadership in highly partisan, multiparty political systems, becoming "engaged" or "involved" means taking sides. Regarding controversial social issues, they equate becoming "active" as a citizen who identifies themselves with a "pro" or "con" (or sometimes "liberal" or "conservative") position.

If the field of leadership studies were more integrated with the field of conflict resolution, leaders would understand that they have another option. They would know that they could be "cross-boundary," "collaborative" or "third side" leaders (or some other equally useful phrase).[18] They would know that that, too, is leadership and, arguably, the most precious kind of all.

Current Implications

When I re-read this essay in May of 2017, I went "wow--this one sure has implications for today!"

First consider Gerzon's discussion of the negative connotations of the word "leader."  Many people in the U.S. profoundly resonate with that notion right now! Yet we seem increasingly far apart on the notion of what a good leader for the U.S. might be.  Some were thrilled with President Obama; others who started out hopeful felt beytrayed by the end of his second term. Others felt he was the worst president the U.S. has ever had. Still others reserve that title to our current president, believing that he isn't fit or deserving to be the "leader" of the U.S.Clearly what people are looking for in a leaders is vastly different based on who they are, their place in society and the world, their hopes and fears.  

The notion of cross-boundary leaders--introduced in this essay--seems to me to be a particularly important one for current times.  I can think of very few cross-boundary leaders right now, but we so desperately need some!

In his last sentence, Gerzon suggests that "third side leaders" are similar to cross-boundary leaders.  Maybe we can start with leaders playing each of Bill Ury's Third Side roles, and then we can expand to leaders operating in larger scopes across the roles--such as,  the leaders -- presidents, prime ministers, and legislators -- of  the U.S. and other large and powerful countries that can bring so much assistance or pain to the rest of the world. Clearly, we need to give a lot more thought to what is needed in our leaders, and how we can choose leaders who fulfill those needs successfully.

Heidi Burgess, May 1, 2017

Back to Essay Top

[1] Burns, J.M. Leadership. New York: 1978. 2.

[2] Terry, R. Authentic Leadership: Courage in Action. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1993. 11.

[3]John W. Gardner, On Leadership, NY: The Free Press 1993

[4] Senge, Peter. The Fifth Discipline NY: Doubleday 1990.

[5] Unpublished Manuscripts, for information, see The Synergos Institute's Website at http://www.synergos.org.

[6] Fisher, R., Ury, W., and Patton, B. Getting to Yes. New York: Penguin. 1991. and Ury, W. The Third Side. New York: Penguin. 2000.

[7] Kellerman, B. Reinventing Leadership. Albany: State University of New York, 1999, p. 1.

[8] Bellamy, Carol. "From 1960s Guatemala Volunteer to Global Director." Winter 2003, page 12. From a speech delivered at Harvard University?s Kennedy School job fair.

[9] Putnam, Robert. Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community. NY: Touchstone. 2000.

[10] Gavino, Jacinto. Unpublished Manuscript, for information, see The Synergos Institute's Website at http://www.synergos.org.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Katzenbach, J. and Smith, D. The Wisdom of Teams. Boston: Harvard Business School, 1993. p. 9

[13] Ibid. 15

[14] Terry, R. Authentic Leadership: Courage in Action. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1993. 11.

[15] Palmer, Parker, Let Your Life Speak. San Francisco: Jossey Bass. 2000.

[16] Stephen R. Covey "Three Roles of the Leader in the New Paradigm" in Hesselbein, F., Goldsmith, M., and Beckhard, R. The Leader of the Future. New York: Drucker Foundation, 1996. 151.

[17] Burns, J.M. Leadership. New York: 1978.

[18] "Cross-Boundary" is Gardner's term, used in John W. Gardner, On Leadership, NY: The Free Press 1993; "Collaborative" is used by David Chrislip in The Collaborative Leadership Fieldbook. San Francisco: Jossey Bass. 2002; and "Third-Side Leaders" is used by William Ury in The Third Side. New York: Penguin. 2000.


Use the following to cite this article:
Gerzon, Mark. "Leaders and Leadership." Beyond Intractability. Eds. Guy Burgess and Heidi Burgess. Conflict Information Consortium, University of Colorado, Boulder. Posted: September 2003 <http://www.beyondintractability.org/essay/leaders>.

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