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Definitions of leadership typically refer to something a leader does to, for, or with followers. The emphasis is on the leader. I view leadership as a system. This system has three components—leader, follower, and context. Leadership is not about the leader but about the relationship between these three components. Remove any part of this system and you destroy leadership. I refer to this dynamic as the ecology of leadership.

Ecology refers to the relationship of organisms to each other and to their environment. The ecology of leadership is about the relationship between leaders and followers within a particular context. Context refers to the situation or environment within which the leaders and followers find themselves.

Someone becomes a leader when others choose to follow. The followers determine who leads. There is no leader if no one is following. If there are followers, then by definition there is a leader. Otherwise you simply have a group of people wandering around. A leader is successful only if the followers are effective. If the followers fail, so does the leader. What is effective depends upon the context. What may work in one situation may not be appropriate in another circumstance. All three elements of the leadership system—leaders, followers, context—are interdependent.

This also means that leadership is an emergent process. Who leads and follows emerges as individuals interact with each other within a particular context. There may be a “designated” leader but that person may not be the true leader. Having a title does not make you a leader. The authority to lead is given by the followers. You become a leader when others choose to follow you.

We need to be mindful of the distinction between leading and leadership. Leading is what a leader does. Leadership is the systemic relationship between leader, follower, and context.

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