There is no denying that many social hierarchies exist, and that a few individuals are in the highest positions in those systems. But are they leaders? By mechanical definition, yes. They give the orders. The orders are followed by others. Is leadership anything more than this physical arrangement of command and control? And do we really want or need leaders? In the future, as populations increase, the answer must be no. Through simple arithmetic it becomes clear that as a population grows it becomes less and less likely that a single individual could make enough decisions fast enough to best support the well-being of the population.
If we search for the definition of leadership we will find more than a few. If we search for what it is and should be in practice, we will find many quotes and aphorisms; many divergent; some pernicious; some uplifting. But the existence of so many meanings implies a certain level of meaninglessness. It becomes very difficult to act efficaciously on an unclear definition with predictable, repeatable results. Let's try to sort it all out.
If we combine all the leadership themes we can find into common categories, most definitions and illustrations of leadership generally break down into concepts of authority, expertise and courage, maybe compassion, or some combination of those attributes. We can quickly end up in a recursive loop, as it is clear that these words themselves also hold a different meaning for each person. That is enough for me to stop considering the slippery concept of leadership as an important tool for understanding anything, much like I would stop using a compass with a needle suggesting magnetic north could be in multiple places simultaneously.
All the rage in business is the idea of "building leaders". How does one consistently or effectively build repeatably what one cannot define in the first place? This theme is more often related to finding the socially strongest among the flock and promoting them into positions where they generate the rules the rest will follow. This is the promotion and maintenance of authority based on genetics and social standing. It is the hope that the one in authority comes with the solutions the tribe needs to survive. But solutions flow from creativity. Authority can only create division and, thus, ultimately limits creativity.
And looking at this physically: really, we live on the surface of an oblate spheroid in cold space. Geometrically speaking there is actually no place I could be led to that I could not move to myself, except where either an element of nature or an authoritarian barrier has been installed. I am motivated by the energy from the same sun as all others. I am the only leader I need. You are the only leader you need. The only authority we really know is that of the laws of nature. All other authority is imagined and imposed. Through this lens, mindful, purposeful collaboration suddenly becomes a more powerful tool for survival and thriving.
In contrast to authority constructed from a dominance hierarchy- which is a very natural organizational structure, by the way- building expertise within a competence hierarchy is helpful. If everyone in an organization is helped along by every other member to understand elements of the world in a deeper way, both the individual and the organization can prosper. This does not require an equality of outcome for all, but just an agreement to help each other where possible.
If there is anything at all to leadership then it must be that true leaders are intentionally building an environment free of fear, where creativity is fostered, and basic well-being is spread to all in some increasing measure...on purpose.
That is to say that leadership is nothing if not the intentional removal of fear from the environment and the constant building of those conditions that foster the ability of all to self-actualize, grow in expertise and contribute to the well-being of all of humanity. Leadership is simply courageously clearing a path for ourselves and others to prosper. And if we are all doing that, then there is no need for the word to be mentioned.