There is no shortage of leadership theories or definitions telling us how to be a leader. What they will mainly define are methods. It may involve how to lead, what principles to use, and what values they are based upon. It may also involve specific skills.
But there is one aspect that will never change, it is the contract. Any type of leadership is a relationship and at the core of every relationship, there will be a contract.
It may involve a written statement, but that mostly is there for administrative purposes.
The contract at the core of every relationship is what is happening between people when they meet and establish a relationship. People figure out what they want to do together. Most often it will be tacit agreements. These agreements are a set of social rules more or less known between them, unspoken adaptations to one another, assumptions about the respective ideas and ideas which have been discussed.
Both move into a role they take up in each other’s presence. The roles become the individual translation of the given agreements. One can sum them up as the individual view on the tasks they execute as a contribution to the relationship, the authority they have, and the limits they’ll perceive.
This is valid for any situation, may it be a simple conversation between people who have just met, someone, becoming a member of an organization, or a leadership situation.
It is normal human behavior.
Where it becomes interesting is, when they start to make the contract explicit and making themselves aware of what it is. It’s an ongoing opportunity to adjust to one another and be clear about it. The willingness to establish such clarity is the doorway to agency. It allows all those involved to determine the power relationship and what can be done to intervene. This also means that it gives everyone a choice and the responsibility for this choice.
Where leadership often fails is in remembering this contract and continuously adapting it to the situation.
It sounds simple, but it is hard and continuous work as it involves the “iceberg”. The trap is to stick to the visible elements of the iceberg and to forget the parts that are invisible in the subconscious as well as the unconscious. They relate to the psychological needs people experience for themselves and in the relationship, dealing with emotional challenges as well as emotional synchronicity. They also relate to the elements existential to the individuals, where failing to meet them often involves loss of dignity and personhood.
Settling with an ongoing adaptation through tacit agreements is leading the relationship into a power and dependency model in which people refuse to make a conscious choice. That is one in which they invite abuse. It is based on fear and the inability to make oneself visible to the other.
The better the ability to include and address all levels leads to stable and fruitful relationships built on agency. Addressing them is adapting the contract to the situation. Continuously making oneself aware of its existence and going back to it is building a constructive relationship. It doesn’t prevent power nor dependency, but it makes it a conscious and reasoned choice both buy into. It puts sustainability over immediate comfort.
The same is true for a one to many relationships. It too requires the willingness to engage in the relationship and remain attentive to the existing contract. It also draws meaning from the ability to contribute to a common result.