What is Leadership Anyway?

Everyone seems to be talking about leadership these days. Given that our country is strikingly divided on what constitutes “good” leadership, it’s time to start talking about what we actually mean. How can we evaluate the quality of the leadership unless there’s a shared understanding of what leadership actually is?

You might respond by saying, “I know it when I see it.” And that’s fine. But it’s also helpful to have a definition of leadership and a coherent story of what leadership is all about.

Why make the effort to think that through? A coherent story guides leaders on their journey. It helps to determine:

• Who to follow (and not follow)

• How to behave oneself

• What to teach and model for the people who are following you

It’s more than a set of skills. It’s a big picture “job description” no matter what arena you might be leading in…at work, for your family, in your community.  You don’t even need a title to fulfill this job description!

Honing and refining your leadership story is important at every stage in your career. Noel Tichy describes this as a teachable point of view. Even if it’s something you never communicate explicitly to others, it’s always available to share with them and gives you a deliberate way to guide your own decisions.

How to Craft a Coherent Leadership Story

You may already have such a coherent story but it helps to refine it from time to time. Although this process is something that can take some time and reflection, a good starting point is to reflect on the following questions:

  • Bring to mind a leader who has been an inspiration for you: what does that person do that you consider leadership? Be as concrete and specific as possible.
  • What is the impact of their leadership, short and long term?
  • What other leaders have inspired you?
  • Reflecting on the people you identified, create a one sentence description of what leadership is for you.
  • Ask yourself, “How am I living out that definition in my own leadership? Where could I improve?”

This is a great starting point for being more conscious of what you mean by leadership and increases your ability to have a thoughtful conversation about “good” leadership.

I developed a leadership definition years ago that has stood the test of time. At least for me! I’d like to share it and I’d be interested in your insights as well.

My Definition of Leadership

Here is my definition: “Leadership is the activity of mobilizing people to work toward a desired future which not only meets people’s needs but elevates them.” In order to clarify this definition, and to make my assumptions clear, I’d like to break the definition down into several key phrases:

Leadership is the activity

Many definitions of leadership focus on the “leader” as an individual and on the personal qualities that he/she is seen as possessing. I find it more helpful to focus on “leadership” as an activity which can be engaged in by all sorts of people whether they have the usual leadership traits or even occupy a formal leadership role. Here’s why I find it more helpful to view leadership as an activity.

First, it’s a more accurate description of what actually occurs.  Leadership isn’t just exercised by individuals. Instead, most leadership involves a network of people working together, either deliberately or coincidentally. People often slip in and out of identified leadership roles, depending on the situation or context. There is also slow, sustained leadership over time, where the individual actions of potentially thousands of people combine to constitute the work of leadership.

Think of any social movement. While many of us can identify Martin Luther King as a key leader of the Civil Rights Movement, do you know the names of any of the other critical leaders during the peak years of that movement?  There were hundreds of individuals who played a significant role and yet many of us have never heard of them, yet we are well aware of the result of that collective activity that we call a movement.

Or consider the tag team effort of a pair of mothers with disabled children.  These women use a “good cop, bad cop” approach to improve care in their local hospital. One takes the role of the demanding, “unreasonable” advocate for the needs of children with significant medical issues; the other acts very cooperative and reasonable. Together they operate as a team. Depending on the activity in which they are engaged, one or the other will take the lead. By focusing on the activity rather than on the individual, many effective leadership combinations can be created.

Another reason to focus on leadership as an activity is it takes the attention off personal qualities or traits. Think back to when you were first in a leadership role. Were you a little tentative and unsure of yourself? I know I was! This tentativeness can cause someone to hold back, even on issues that matter. Your inner critic might be saying, “Who are you? A leader? You must be kidding!”   And yet many people become leaders not because they want to but because something they care about is at stake. I’ve talked to so many of these “reluctant leaders.” In fact, my book, Why Not Lead? was written with just those people in mind. Viewing leadership as an activity frees us up to take action on the things that matter to us, even if we don’t fit the leadership “mold.”

Mobilizing people to work toward a desired future

The second key aspect of this definition relates to the nature of the activity: “mobilizing people to work toward a desired future.”  The implication of this phrase is that leadership is about  is movement, change, growth, that bridges the gap between our current state and our desired future.  Implicit in the phrase is the assumption that leadership is needed when things are not the way we want them to be.

When we talk about “desired future” we introduce the concept of vision, of something to strive toward. Geoffrey Bellman writes, “Leadership can be seen as energy collected, directed, and released toward a future vision.”  He makes the point that before we decide to follow someone, that person has already made a commitment to a vision, a desired future.

There’s a quote in the Bible, Proverbs 29: 18 that says, “Without a vision the people perish.”  Having a vision to move toward is life enhancing: it generates energy and momentum.  The quote is a great reminder of the potency of vision in a metaphorical way.  Yet it is not just a figure of speech; it is literally true. If our vision excludes certain voices, people or perspectives, then you can be sure that they will not be present. 

That not only meets people’s needs but elevates them

Here is the final phrase in my leadership definition, a phrase I borrowed from James McGregor Burns. This is the moral component to the definition, the part that says just having a vision isn’t enough, it needs to be a vision that contributes to the greater good. Hitler had a vision: it was sharp and colorful and convincing to many, many people. Millions of people died as a result of his vision. And there are many more recent examples that we can point to. While it is important to have a vision, the content of that vision is just as important.

Although I stop short of offering a prescription for the content of your personal vision, I do believe there are certain principles that contribute to the aspiration of not only meeting people’s needs but elevating them:

  • Working toward this vision brings out the good in people;
  • Inclines people to act with cοmpassion toward even the most disadvantaged members;
  • Equalizes and even elevates the status of people who are generally disregarded or overlooked;
  • Promotes life and a rich quality of life vs. death and a diminished quality of life;
  • Encourages people to live the Golden Rule, or the ethic of reciprocity, which is found in the scriptures of nearly every religion.

Take a minute to think about the definition of leadership I’ve presented and how it compares to yours. Are there important aspects of your definition that are not addressed in mine?  Are there some elements of mine that stimulate you to think differently about your conception of leadership? 

I’d love to start a dialogue that advances our understanding of what we mean by “leadership.”

Deborah Reidy is founder and president of Reidy Associates, a coaching and consulting service established in 1996. Reidy Associates works with nonprofit, government and industry leaders to help them create cultures that encourage inspiration, accountability and results.

She holds a MEd in Adult Education and a  Professional Certified Coach (PCC) designation from the International Coach Federation.

In 2012, she published a book on leadership for families of people with disabilities entitled Why Not Lead?, based on her highly successful leadership development programs. She also blogs regularly on leadership topics.  Deborah and her husband Jim live in Southampton and Oak Bluffs, Massachusetts.

She’s just launched an online leadership development site called Grow to Lead.  For more information, check out her website, Linkedin or Facebook.