lead·er·ship – noun
- the action of leading a group of people or an organization
- the state or position of being a leader
A Leadership Through Integrity best practice is being consistent in your thoughts, words and actions.
Are you really sure what leadership is? I mean, really? The word leadership is all around us, it’s everywhere, but what does it really mean? I guarantee if you ask 10 different people to define the word leadership the responses will be all over the place, you will hear the qualities of a leader not about leadership itself. Don’t get me wrong, all those people have a vision of what leadership is as it’s defined by its attributes but maybe the word leadership is just a bucket to describe something that’s indescribable.
As you can read above, the Google dictionary defines leadership as ‘the action of leading a group of people or an organization’. To clarify, the word is a noun but leadership is defined as an action which is then really a verb, huh? Confused yet? …I am. So does that mean that a Sherpa on an expedition in the Himalayas is a leader? Now technically the answer is yes. They are leading a group. It may be an extreme example but here’s the point, anyone in charge of a group is, by definition, a leader. Do a quick scan of your work history and think about the managers or leaders that you worked for. Now ask yourself – did they show leadership? My hunch is the answer is no. That must mean there’s more to the word leadership than the first definition, so what’s going on here?
The second definition is ‘the state or position of being a leader’. I also find that confusing. Does that mean a leader is any person in a job of authority that leads people? Again, technically yes. I challenge you to ask yourself the same question, think about every leader from your past and ask yourself if they were really leaders? I’m sure some of them were yet I’m also sure many were not.
The problem is that people and organizations have a different vision of what leadership is. If you’re reading this article to figure out the true meaning you can stop now. I don’t have the actual answer, in fact, I’m not sure there really is an actual answer. The purpose of this article is to challenge your thinking a bit and maybe, just maybe, you will think about coming up with an answer that works for you. That said, I will express my opinion but I don’t know If that will work because my definition is my own. Wait…what? Ah-ha! Maybe that’s the answer! Perhaps the definition is intentionally vague. What if the purpose for the word, and the whole concept of leadership, is that it can’t be universally described and that it is up to the individual or organization to develop their own description that works for them? Interesting.
Most articles that I have read about leadership speaks of it as a quality that a person possesses in business. I don’t think that’s right. Of course there are true business leaders, but there are many more leaders outside of the realm of business including those who lead families, and at a deeper level, those who lead themselves. I don’t know if it’s possible to be a true leader without having a grasp of one’s own personal leadership that affects their lives on a daily basis. I don’t have any research to prove my next point other than a lifetime of observations and interaction with people, maybe that’s enough though.
Thinking about people that were in a leadership position in my life, business life, it’s clear that individuals that had a grasp of their own personal leadership were more effective. People that were put in a position of leadership, sometimes against their will through promotions, did not have a grasp of their own behaviors were not good leaders. In fact, they were terrible at it.
Back to the original point about leadership itself, what is it? What is true leadership? Is it a person in a position of power that directs those around them to do things at the peril of the organization and for personal gain? Many would say that that is strong leadership. I personally don’t think so. I would choose not to work for an organization like that and I would turn them down as a coaching client with that core belief. Another way to look at leadership could be a person in a position of authority that provides little direction to meet company objectives.
So you see, by definition, both those examples are leaders but are they really effective? Companies throw around the word leadership like it’s commonly known. Here’s the bathroom, here’s the conference room, here’s the kitchen, and here is leadership! I suppose we’re just supposed to know what it means. I’m not even convinced the people in charge of most organizations really know what it means either.
I have personal knowledge of a very successful, highly focused, highly efficient leader being told they needed to improve their leadership skills. The problem was, the leader I’m speaking of didn’t know what the company’s definition was (spoiler, there really wasn’t one, there were many depending who was asked). Okay fine, you caught me, I’m speaking of myself. I couldn’t believe it, I had refined leadership skills and modeled the qualities of a leader on a daily basis. BTW, this is not my opinion or grandiose thinking, I regularly received unsolicited feedback about my leadership abilities from a wide range of people.
Moving on, here is the breakdown – I was approachable and highly respected by my direct reports and others. I maintained a smile and a positive demeanor even when challenged especially during difficult times. I was open-minded and straightforward, the opinions of others actually mattered to me. I took accountability for my actions and those of my direct reports. I consistently treated everyone equally despite how I felt about the situation. I showed confidence in asking for help or support when needed. I consistently helped others without asking for anything in return. I genuinely cared about people showing empathy and concern for their well-being.
So what could this specific executive possibly have been talking about? The answer was, the executive I reported to wanted me to tell the employees people what to do and not care so much about them. Behind closed doors, this person even told me that they wished they knew how to be empathetic. I was very impressed with this very self-aware statement. It didn’t last long. The very next comment was quite literally, “there is no room for empathy here” and, “people just need to do what you tell them to do”. I guess that’s why this person had a career of churning through a lot of people. To that person’s credit, they knew what leadership was, at least what it meant to them. It wasn’t the list of qualities that I described. It was, ‘do as you’re told and shut up’.
Being honest, there is a place for that type of leadership in this world. For example, in hazardous or dangerous situations, that kind of leadership is highly effective. For anyone that has ever been around children, think about this for a minute. You see a child, maybe your own, playing on the sidewalk. The child suddenly runs between two cars to retrieve a ball in the street. Do you shout STOP? Do you display the leadership style of – do what I’m telling you to do right now or else? Of course you do! There’s a safety concern.
Now imagine the same scenario where you talk to the child in a soft voice – oh please stop, I care about your feelings, running in the street is dangerous, I want you to be okay, or something else in a very supportive tone. Is that the appropriate response? No! I realize that some parents and caregivers might argue with me about this however, I’m not here to debate the example, it speaks for itself. Direct leadership, without any ambiguity, is actually called for in any hazardous or dangerous situation.
The question is, does that style of leadership work for most organizations? My experience tells me that it is certainly very popular and widely found. If the answer is yes, and the business is always in crisis mode, then this is indeed the appropriate style of leadership (for this specific situation). Unsustainable leadership, but leadership nonetheless. An organization that needs that type of leadership is one with bigger problems that can’t be fixed by reading a few blog posts.
I’ve talked a lot about what leadership is and isn’t, yet an actual definition is still open for discussion. In my opinion, leadership doesn’t happen accidentally. It takes focus. It takes drive. It takes commitment. It takes self-awareness. It takes awareness of people and the world. It is also subjective.
Danger, coaching moment ahead…
For job seekers and for people in jobs that are feeling lost or overwhelmed: Ask your boss what their definition of leadership is. Understanding their definition is critical for you to know how you fit into the organization.
For business owners and executives: Ask yourself to define and document your vision of leadership. Struggle with this topic. Ask for help if you need it, that’s what a leader would do. Once you figure it out, share your vision with your direct reports. You might just thank me one day.
For individuals seeking to refine their leadership skills: Start by making a list of who you are with respect to leadership. Write another list of who you want to be. The rest is a journey. Leadership doesn’t happen overnight. Be kind and patient with yourself. The fact that you read this entire article is a big sign that that you have the ability to persevere and come up with your own definition.
I welcome discussion on this topic.