Leadership: The Word that Means Nothing and Everything
Trying to resolve my anxiety around using the word
I feel like a field medic that’s gone back to medical school. I’ve been in some sort of pastoral ministry for twenty years. I’ve seen my fair share of battles and skirmishes. I’ve seen victories, and I’ve been wounded. I’ve also coached a good number of pastors and church planters, heard their stories, and walked with them through their trials. And now, I’m back into studying leadership as a student of the discipline. But here’s the thing, I know what works and doesn’t work. So, I’ve lost all the starry-eyed giddiness that I used to have when I read a “leadership book” about the key principles of leadership or the next best way to organize a team. So much of it just doesn’t work in the field unless the field is a best-seller list of business books.
The Problem with Leadership
And a good bit of this has to do with the way we use the word leadership. In the realm of dictionary wars, there are two philosophical points of view: prescriptivist and descriptivist. The prescriptivists think it is the duty of the dictionary compiler to prescribe how the English language should be used. These are the gate-guarders of appropriate English usage. They don’t sit around checking the previous year’s list of zeitgeist word usage, ready to admit words based on their popular usage. Instead, they see themselves as those to whom the English language has been entrusted. And they take that trust seriously. A language can degrade and grow over time. Someone has to tend the garden of English usage. Prescriptivists are the gardeners.
Then there are the descriptivists. These are the anthropologists of the English language. They see their task as charting and recording how language changes over time. If some words decrease in popularity or grow in popularity, or pop on the scene as a new word or usage, the descriptivists see it as their responsibility to record that change. Descriptivists are the recorders and silent chroniclers of English language usage. If a new word is created, they must categorize it and record it, even if it is sus.
I’m firmly in the prescriptivist camp, a SNOOTy minority of Anglophiles. But I also lament the degradation of the English language and the loss of so much linguistic fodder with which to work. A culture with a small dictionary, ignorant of its literary past, is an impoverished culture. A culture that populates its dictionary with words taken from social media usage is a silly culture. I don’t want to be poor or silly when it comes to English usage.
So, enter the use of the word leadership. It is not a new word, but its usage has grown exponentially. It has grown to be a catch-all term for other terms that have decreased in usage. Take, for example, the use of *statesman* and *leader* over time. There is no doubt that a statesman is a leader, though a leader is not always a statesman. The Google Ngram chart for the use of these two words over the past 200 years shows that the use of leader has radically increased, and the use of statesman has decreased.
Have we had a rise in the number of leaders or a decrease in the number of statesmen since 1800? Certainly not. Something has happened on the linguistic level of English usage. The more specialized type of leader—the statesman—has been replaced by the more categorically general description of a statesman as a leader. And I won’t bore you with multiple Ngram charts. We can see this same type of chart tendency for all kinds of professions that display characteristics that we would call leadership.
A Linguistic Category Shift
So, there has been a linguistic category shift from specific to general. To show how this complicates things, let me give two examples. Take for example, the general category of “sandwich.” What is a sandwich? Merriam-Webster defines a sandwich as “two or more slices of bread or a split roll having a filling in between.” So, is a Rueben a sandwich? Yes, of course. Is a club a sandwich? Yes. Is a hamburger a sandwich? Well, yes, sort of. Is a hot dog a sandwich? Yes, according to the definition. But when you get down to order lunch, and order a sandwich, but you’re served a hot dog, you realize somewhere that the dictionary definition of a general category didn’t result in your lunchtime enjoyment. And the category doesn’t work the other way. If you order a hotdog and are served a ham sandwich, something has gone very wrong on an etymological level.
Now, let’s consider athletes. Merriam-Webster defines an athlete as “a person who is trained or skilled in exercises, sports, or games requiring physical strength, agility, or stamina.” Is a football player an athlete? Yes. Is a swimmer an athlete? Yes. Is a poker player an athlete? Well, they’re on ESPN. What about curling? What about your three-year-old who has learned to roll a ball across the floor? Is he an athlete like Steph Curry is an athlete?
Where This Leaves Us
Does this mean we should abandon all broad categories? Of course not. There is great value in using words that describe a broad range of subcategories. But if we use those words solely, without being specific, well then you may get a hot dog for lunch instead of a ham and Swiss croissant or go scrolling for your three-year-old’s top plays on Sports Center. And this is the problem we run into with how people use the word leadership these days.
Is the president a leader? Of course. Is a state congressman a leader? Yes. Is the chair of the local PTA a leader? Well, kinda. Is the alpha male in a pack of junior high school kids a leader? I suppose so. But these things are not all the same. It would be better to use the specific titles over the general category—president, congressman, chairman, lead bully. When we’re more specific, we don’t run into the problems of hotdogs instead of a Philly cheesesteak.
So, as a prescriptivist, I’d prefer not to use the term leader at all. I’d prefer to use a more specific category. But the descriptivists have won the day (for now), and we are left with using the term of the day to describe all kinds of chiefs among all kinds of tribes. It would be better to be specific. If you’re training politicians, don’t call it leadership training; call it, instead, statesman training. If you are training elders in a church, don’t call it leadership training; call it elder training. We can win back the English language. But it will take time and precision. Let’s start with how we use words like leadership.