What is Leadership?
People often ask me, “What does leadership mean?” That is a billion-dollar question, considering the fact that there is a fourteen-billion-dollar industry dedicated to leadership skills training, just for American companies (Rothman, 2016). Your answer to the question above will determine how you interact with and influence your coworkers.
Before I define leadership, let me explain why you need to understand this critical set of skills. To create great products and run amazing projects in a timely manner, you will need a team. You will need to learn how to build a team, seeking the right members and recruiting them for your cause. You will also need to know how to engender trust, create a vision, and support your team with all your might. Leadership skills comprise all these and more.
Although I was aware of the importance of leadership skills in a manager’s work life, I was unable to provide a succinct answer to the question above. To find the answer, I went on a quest lasting years. I approached my employers’ and clients’ training departments for help. I attended multiple leadership courses, in different formats and with variety of leadership models. I went on to read plethora of books, articles and blogs.
I was overwhelmed by what I found. A google search on leadership skills produces 392 million results in 0.63 seconds. I found multiple answers to the leadership question, from different viewpoints. Some answers contradicted each other. I remember reading, “everyone is a leader” (Disney Institute, 2015) and then “not everyone can be a leader” (Beveridge, 2009). I felt like I had come full circle.
Leadership is a very broad topic which draws on multiple disciplines: psychology, sociology, business, spirituality, systems and more. You need a specific definition for leadership if you want to take action towards developing yourself as a leader.
If you are a practitioner of leadership like me, I suggest asking a refined question: “What does leadership mean to you?” The answers you discover might be life changing for you. They were for me. After many years of exploration and introspection, I started forming a practical definition.
Here are the components of leadership that resonated with me, in my role as a business leader. I also found them to be the common threads running through diverse texts:
Influencing others is the most important denominator of leadership skills. If you are not influencing someone, you are not leading. Depending on your own leadership situation, you might want to break down the “influence” even further; e.g., getting a commitment from my team to build a new engineering prototype.
Whether I am leading a project team, my direct reports, or a small tribe, I am influencing them to honor me with their best efforts, to come with me on a journey towards a future.
Have you ever worked on a team where different members were marching in different directions, with no common purpose to guide their efforts? You probably have. It is not uncommon to notice business situations where the appointed chief has not taken time to paint a picture of the vision for the organization. These situations are great example of poor leadership or no leadership. A picture of the future that a tribe is marching towards is a necessary condition of a well led team.
I craft and share a vision for the future, working with and for my team. Not only do I communicate a vision for the future or the goal of a project, I insist on every team member understanding the vision and being able to transfer the vision to others who might need to know.
A leader might be very well prepared, but she will not gain commitment from her coworkers without a service minded approach. Her moment to moment actions and choices will change when she is approaching colleagues with an attitude of service.
I worked for two different leaders in my career, let us call them Radha and Tina (not their real names). Both of them were very skilled, smart and knowledgeable experts in their fields. There was a small difference – Radha was not service minded. Tina was. The impact was very palpable in the team they led. Radha’s team dreaded working for her. Tina’s team looked forward to working for her. Tina took a service orientation towards her team. She approached them with an attitude to serve them; the team reciprocated by giving her their best efforts.
4. SELF REFLECTION:
Leadership is a process that is enhanced through self-reflection. Understanding yourself, seeing yourself as others see you and growing yourself to increase your emotional capacity to lead is imperative if you want to become a leader your followers deserve.
Kouzes & Posner (2012) put it succinctly in their book, “The Leadership Challenge: How to Make Extraordinary Things Happen in Organizations” :
Engineers have computers; painters, canvas and brushers; musicians, instruments. Leaders have only themselves. The instrument of leadership is the self, and the mastery of the art of leadership comes from mastery of the self. Leadership development is self-development, and self-development is not about stuffing in a whole bunch of new information of trying out the latest technique. It is about leading out of what is already in your soul. It’s about liberating the leader within you. And it starts with taking a look inside (page 337).
When I am practicing leadership skills, I am the instrument. I grow as a leader by observing and changing my behaviors. My behaviors are impacted by my belief system. My belief system is built through my thoughts and feelings. To ensure that my growth continues, I monitor my thoughts and feelings. I understand that thoughts aligned with my highest aspirations will eventually create a better leader in me.
I combined the four main components above to come up with a definition that works for my own leadership development. To me, leadership is “to serve and influence my colleagues in quest of a shared vision with my thoughts, actions and behaviors.”
I recently gave a talk on this topic, and an attendee Jim (pseudonym) rightfully described his leadership as “clearly coordinat[ing] the messages from my team to my stakeholders outside the team.” To him, his responsibility as a leader in his managerial role is fulfilled through the practice of “translating messages.” He knows that he can serve and influence his team the best way possible by translating.
The most pressing leadership need for you will depend on the context, your values and the vision. I challenge you to define what leadership means to you. If you can define your own need from this broad set of skills called leadership, you can start working on your own growth. In the word of a famous Chinese proverb, “a journey of a mile starts with a single step.” With a definition of your own, you can take that first step and start the journey of self-discovery and growth. You are not the only one who benefits from this journey. Your team, your project, your bosses and your customers also advance because of your leadership growth.
Let me illustrate by another example. Let’s say, you are the project leader of a team of 50 people working on a mission critical project. Your team members are technically gifted and some of the best at what they do. Through introspection and by asking around, you have learned that your ability to lead your team is directly proportional to your ability to communicate verbally. You talk to them frequently, and can decide how many times and in which setting you will talk to them. In this example, the single most important skill to increase your influence on your team members is to clearly articulate your message to them. If the team members don’t understand completely what you are trying to convey, you will not succeed as a project leader. In this context, the leadership skills for you means mastering how to articulate your message to a group of 50 people so they understand what you understand, and are motivated to work on their assigned tasks. Your self-growth strategy will be to learn how to “put together and speak a coherent message to the group to motivate them”.
Once you start defining leadership for you, you can clearly articulate the first step. Once the first step is clear, you can take actions towards growing as a leader. Your leadership growth will open doors for further success because once you start connecting and influencing your coworkers, you can accomplish goals way beyond your own abilities. Leadership is about co-creating with others, helping you and your colleagues in the process.
So back to the question: what does leadership mean to you?
Beveridge, C. (2009). Leadership Myth #1: we are all leaders. Retrieved from Troubleshooter: Insights and Opinions by Colin Beveridge: http://www.colin-beveridge.com/index.php/leadership-myth-1-we-are-all-leaders/
Disney Institute. (2015, May 18). Today’s Reality: Everyone is a Leader. Retrieved from INC. Partners Insights • Disney Institute: http://www.inc.com/disneyinstitute/everyone-is-a-leader.html
Kouzes, J. M., & Posner, B. Z. (2012). The Leadership Challenge: How to Make Extraordinary Things Happen in Organizations. San Francisco CA: Jossey-Bass.
Rothman, J. (2016, February 29). Shut up and sit down. Why the leadership industry rules. The New Yorker, pp. 64-69.