Etymology of Leadership

Etymology of Leadership

Have you ever wondered where the word leadership comes from?  The Arcade Dictionary of Word Origins explains two roots of the word lead.  One describes the metal, which “may have come ultimately from an Indo-European source meaning ‘flow’ (a reference to the metal’s low melting point)”.  The other traces lead back to “a prehistoric West and North Germaniclaithjan,” which was derived from laitho, meaning way or journey, from which comes the English word load.  Etymologically then, “lead means ’cause to go along one’s way.”

In medieval times the word lead began to take on more specific dimensions.  The OnlineEtymology Dictionary tells us that the idea of being “in first place” came about in the 1400’s.  In fact, lead meaning “the front or leading place” is from the 1560’s when it was actually stigmatized as “a low, despicable word.”  Its use in card-playing comes from 1742; “in theater, from 1831; in journalism, from 1927; in jazz bands, from 1934.”  Interestingly, holding a “lead” position in relation to others, part of what seems to have become a major feature ofleadership in modern times, is different from earlier linguistic constructions that sawleadership in far more existential terms (i.e. “leading” one’s life).  The question is, what allows for carryover between these definitions?

We have a concept of leadership which some argue is ancient and at the least prehistoric, that places an emphasis on the existential nature of life, its flow you might even extrapolate.  This meaning has morphed over the millenia into a pre-modern and arguably even post-modern concept of leadership that refers to a box of traits, with one who possesses these traits being essentially qualified to live an exemplary life.  In this light, our cultural fixation withleadership might even be viewed as a means of separating classes of people: those who exhibit the capacity to lead and those who don’t.  (There are many implications of this, but those I’ll save for another blog post…)

A modern etymological synonym of leading is to guide, which comes from the Old Frenchguider, “to guide, lead, conduct,” from the Frankish witan, to “show the way,” from the Pre-Germanic wit– “to know,” weisen, “to show, point out,” in Old English witan, “to see”, and from Pre-Indo-European weid– “to see.”  To close the loop on this, the Pre-Indo-Europeanetymology of the verb to see is sekw–  which may be the same base that produced words for “say” in Greek and Latin, and also words for “follow” (i.e. follow with the eyes).  From this perspective, leading is about seeing and following one’s vision as much as it’s about consciously setting a course or example for others.

We have seminars and camps and retreats and infinite literature on what it means to exhibitleadership, how to cultivate the qualities of leadership and how to promote leadership in our communities.  And yet, as elegant and complex as we can make it, leadership seems to come down to a definition that held sway 5,500 years ago: the ability to see one’s own way.  It is not that how we choose to live is immaterial to the livelihoods of others – we live in an interdependent society and our decisions certainly impact the communities we are parts of.  But when we stop and think about it, before we strive for someone else’s definition of how to be a good leader, it seems imperative that we learn how to clearly see who and where we ourselves are first.  Then we can truly be leaders.

6 thoughts on “Etymology of Leadership

  1. Congratulations for the article. This [In fact, lead meaning “the front or leading place” is from the 1560’s when it was actually stigmatized as “a low, despicable word.”] captured my attention. Can you share the link, please?

    By the way I read somewhere (I think it was in a magazine [Advantage] from BI-NBS Norwegian Business School) that term “leader” gained wings to be the opposite of “manager” with the reinforcement of the role of Capital Markets where the Leaders are the ones responsible for performing towards owners goals. Since you wrote about the theme I wonder if you came across to something similar.

    If yes, please, give feedback. Have a great weekend.


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