Looking for biz leaders in all the wrong places

October 17, 2011, 4:24 PM UTC

By Eleanor Bloxham, CEO of The Value Alliance and Corporate Governance Alliance

FORTUNE — As we look at declining U.S. competitiveness and stalled job creation, it’s all too understandable to ask, “Where are the business leaders we need?”

But if we stop to think about it, is it leadership that is lacking? Or is it our definition of leadership that is lacking? Maybe we are simply looking for leadership in the wrong places.

Power, influence and leadership are all tied to each other. And many people view power from an outdated perspective. That older perspective argues that whoever controls the most people and the most dollars is powerful: Rank spells leadership and power.

But this is not true. Corporate boards, which sit at the top of a company’s hierarchy, often act anemically. And board members often feel they do not have power to make the changes they’d like to make.

So too with many CEOs. Some are insecure, in need of an ego massage. Others have made it to the “top” because they felt they were “supposed to” — they were following a script and lost their true sense of self.

Their powerlessness shows up in many ways: throwing tantrums, taking the easy route when addressing difficult problems, ignoring major issues, and failing to act responsibly.

Real leadership is the courage to act from your highest and noblest self: it is not dominion over people or dollars but expressing who you are that matters. Certainly, there are large company CEOs that are powerful, effective leaders, but it is not their rank that makes them so. Rank is often not synonymous with power.

We have all worked with colleagues who have tremendous influence, even if it is negative, despite the fact that they do not sit anywhere high up in the company’s hierarchy. They can work on the negative side of power, trying to — and succeeding — in stalling any good initiative that comes along. They may work in the background and may even undermine our own efforts.

But then there are also others who work silently and make big differences for the good. These leaders sit beside you — they may even be you. And no one has heard of them or really knows.

Jay Elliot, author of The Steve Jobs Way: iLeadership for a New Generation, who worked closely with Jobs at Apple (AAPL) as a senior vice president, recently told me that the greatest leadership lesson he learned from Jobs was to be yourself.

“Being yourself” can be far from easy in a world that clings to an obviously failing notion of leadership and power. And the current economic crisis that we face today persists in part because those who are real leaders often do not have access to capital to fund their innovative ideas.

But access to capital or perceived control over people should never be confused with real leadership. Some of this has come to the forefront through the efforts of Ed Morrison, economic policy advisor at the Purdue Center for Regional Development, and others. Projects like the space cluster in Florida, the solar cluster in Arizona, and the Holland-Zee initiatives in Michigan show that some leaders, irrespective of rank, are coming together to build economic stability for their communities.

Their power does not come from rank or title but from intellect and perseverance. That model is more like that of a Ford or an Edison on a collective scale, and that is the model that will, if given a chance, see us through to better economic times. This leadership model resonates with retired General Jack Chain, who sat on a number of corporate boards and, at one time, headed the Strategic Air Command. He said that while you can find many people with great personalities, intellect is what makes for a great leader.

In addition to the collective efforts, we can also witness individuals embracing a new definition of leadership; young and old making the conscious choice to eschew rank and strike out on their own.

If we look to the inherited definitions of leadership and power, we will continue to be disappointed and frustrated with our failure to fix the economy. We will miss the leaders in our midst and may ourselves mistakenly aspire to some position rather than a true place of influence and meaning. Let’s hope that we won’t have to learn this lesson the hard way.

Eleanor Bloxham is CEO of The Value Alliance and Corporate Governance Alliance (http://thevaluealliance.com), a board advisory firm.