What is Leadership?

At first glance, this appears to be a fairly easy question to answer, but is it really? If I wanted to set myself the goal of being a “good leader” or a “great leader” or even an “extraordinary leader”, what standard would I be measuring myself against? What base would I be building on to go from being a leader to being a good, great or extraordinary leader? What base is someone else using if they assess me as a bad leader?

Recently, a colleague and I were discussing leadership and, in particular, what leadership meant to us. I have some fairly strong opinions about leadership, so when my colleague asked “What do you think a leader is?” my immediate thought was “Oh, that’s easy!” Except, when I went to answer the question, I suddenly realised that it wasn’t so easy. All I had were clichés, leadership quotes that no longer seemed relevant, and a list of personal qualities that I felt were essential for a good leader. I could not produce a description of what a leader actually is.

I had just uncovered a huge gap.  Here I was, placing pressure on myself to become an extraordinary leader, but I didn’t even have a consistent, solid definition of what a leader (good, bad or otherwise) was meant to be. After some further reading, I formed the assessment that this gap is not unique to me, and that there are a lot of people out in the world striving to be good leaders, but with no real definition of what leadership is. As a process driven person, I couldn’t help thinking – isn’t that like knitting a jumper without knowing what knitting is? And if you don’t know what knitting is, how do you measure success? Is a jumper full of holes still success? Could a jumper full of holes be considered success to some people but not to others?

My exploration of leadership had led to me deciding that my current thoughts, knowledge and perceptions surrounding leadership were no longer enough for me. My aim has always been to pursue and achieve leadership greatness, and I was starting to understand that this wouldn’t happen without some further exploration and effort on my part. It was also highly possibly that this exploration was going to result in me wanting to change my approach to leadership.

So, where to start? Good question…

My colleague suggested that one view is that leaders create change and managers maintain the status quo. So, someone delivering a service, exactly as it has always been delivered, with no efforts to change anything, would be a manager. Someone looking to change an aspect of how that service is delivered, or an outcome of that service delivery, would be a leader.

To be honest, I wasn’t so sure of this explanation, probably because I generally see myself as someone who is not a fan of change. In my mind, I was never going to walk into an organisation and create huge change, so why should that discount me as a leader? My colleague then explained that even me trying to prepare for a client meeting with a view of changing the (expected) outcome of that meeting to something new was an example of leadership. Ok so maybe he was on to something, but I was still hesitant.

I started to think of all of the leaders I had experienced – good and not so good. All of these people had all been trying to create change of some description. Some were trying to create change at an organizational level, some were trying to create change at individual levels. All, however, were trying to create change. Similarly, the people who I had previously considered as managers were all maintaining the status quo.

So, I think I like the explanation that leaders create change and managers maintain the status quo. But is it really that simple? What about all of the qualities that we throw around when we are talking about leadership, such as compassion, integrity, awareness, support, collaboration, and so forth? Do these still apply when considered in conjunction with this definition? I think that they do, and I am wondering whether perhaps they become even more important when taken in this context. For a leader to create change, there is potentially a need to understand the perceptions and points of view of the people involved, and how those perceptions could impact the required change. There may be a further requirement to work towards addressing those perceptions. I think that this is where all of the standard leadership qualities that we talk about come into play – without awareness, compassion, etc, the outcome could be very different.

When I was working to change the outcome of the client meeting that I mentioned earlier in this post, I was looking at what position the client would be coming from, what their perception was, and what assessments they had made about myself and the organisation. Understanding why they held these assessments and understanding what reality meant to them meant that I could then find a way of communicating with them that would potentially provide the change in outcome that I was after.  Alternatively, I could have just pushed forward trying to change the outcome of the meeting without understanding any of the above. I may have got to a desirable outcome, but I most likely would not have. Instead, I may have caused irreparable damage to the relationship with this client by going into the meeting with only the outcome in mind and no awareness of what this meant for the client. My assessment is that this is why the qualities that we associate with leadership, such as awareness, compassion, collaboration, ownership, accountability, responsibility, authenticity, etc, are so important. These qualities impact how we create the change. It is how we go about creating that change that defines us as leaders, and it is from here that we then start to assess people as good, bad, great or extraordinary leaders.

So that’s it – the result of my leadership exploration so far.

Where to from here? Well, for me, I think I will throw away my clichéd leadership quotes and start focusing on the changes that I am creating as a leader in my organisation. And, whilst doing that, I am going to commence an exploration of what it means to be an extraordinary leader. Now that I have my own interpretation of what leadership is, I am quite excited about working out how I can create something extraordinary.

How would you define leadership? What makes a “good” leader? What makes a “bad” leader? Please feel free to share your thoughts if you would like to.

2 thoughts on “What is Leadership?

  1. To me a leader is a person who can assess each situation or person on its or their merits. Takes the time to see the myriad of possibilities and goes ahead realising that things may well change on the fly. Doesn’t get bogged down with “shoulds” in life.

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    1. Hi Kate. I have been thinking about your comment about not getting bogged down with “should”, and I realised that I had a recent experience that I think aligns with (my interpretation of) what you are saying. What I found was that when I stopped thinking about the “shoulds” and “should haves”, and started to think about how to move forward to an outcome that was more acceptable, I was able to understand what we were trying to achieve and plan my next steps. Conversely, when I was focussing on what my team “should” be doing (and seemingly weren’t), I actually found myself becoming too attached to the situation and setting myself up to respond based on emotion. Thankfully, I worked that out before I started to address the issue. Thanks for taking the time to comment – you have helped me to understand a little bit more about myself as a leader. TCL.

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