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.


Let the People do their Job

Don’t tell people how to do things, tell them what to do and let them surprise you with their results.

George S. Patton 

Have you ever been in a situation where you have been trying to carry out a task, and a manager (or someone else) has started to dictate how to do it, even though the task may fall squarely within your expertise and role description? How did that make you feel? What did you do? What was the outcome?

A number of years ago, I worked in a team of technical professionals. We had a very new manager in charge of one of the accounts that we were supporting. Invariably, he would question how the team was trying to achieve its goals, insist that all technical solutions be implemented his way, escalate to (global) management if we didn’t do it his way, and over-ride all technical advice that we provided to the client. This was done in forums where the client had visibility of our organisation, so the team often felt attacked in front of the client.

The team had a defined set of standards to follow. There was “best practice” to consider, as well as ensuring that commercial protection was provided to our organisation and the client. This manager did not take any of that into consideration when instructing people to do it his way. He appeared to operate on the assumption that he knew best. As a result, he used this knowledge to order people around.

When people succumbed to taking his orders, results were produced that did not have the best long term impact on our client or our organisation. This then resulted in the same manager taking the team to task over the outcome and further telling them how to do the next step in the process.

Not listening to him and following the set standards and procedures resulted in him questioning (and sometimes berating) the team in front of the client and global leadership. The team also felt under-valued, not listened to, and disrespected. Some of these people had been subject matter experts in their field for years and were very well-respected professionals. In my assessment, this manager was neither understanding that nor using it to his advantage.

My learning from this particular situation was – don’t tell the people how to do their job. If you have employed people for their specialist skill set, let them use those skills to surprise you with the results. Trust them, develop them, and empower them to give them the outcomes that you require. Ask yourself whether the “how” is important. If it is, explain that to the team; tell them why it is important, and let them complete the task. If it isn’t, then is there any harm in trusting the experts?

I really like the quote at the beginning of this post, but I would probably change it slightly – I would say “…tell them what you are aiming to achieve, and let them surprise you with the results”. The team will require an understanding of the outcome that is required. They will need to understand any restrictions and caveats, and they will need to understand priorities, etc.

In most cases, people will be able to work out what steps to take and how to take those steps. And, if they can’t, then are you providing an environment in which they feel comfortable asking for help? If they do ask for help, remember again that the best approach may not be to tell them what to do next or how to do it. Perhaps a more useful approach is to coach them to an appropriate solution and to ensure that you can provide them with the additional resourcing, tools or process required to complete the task.

How do you use your people to achieve outcomes? How is that working for you? What could you improve?

It’s not Personal

Don’t take anything personally. Nothing others do is because of you. What others say and do is a projection of their own reality, their own dream. When you are immune to the opinions and actions of others, you won’t be the victim of needless suffering.

Don Miguel Ruiz

When I was new to leadership positions, one of the challenges that I found incredibly difficult to overcome was that I often took things too personally. I was keen to do my job well, and my fear of failure meant that I was terrified of “doing the wrong thing”. When outcomes weren’t as expected, or people provided negative feedback – constructive or otherwise – it was very hard not to take it personally, because it hit upon my innermost fears and insecurities. It hurt my ego.

As you can imagine, this impacted some of my decision making, because my decisions were made from a base of emotion. The result was that my decisions did not always serve me well, and outcomes were not always as expected.

So how did I change this?

I have used a number of techniques to assist me in taking things less personally. When I first decided that this was something that I would like to change about myself, I didn’t know about Emotional Intelligence or “Way of Being” or mindfulness, or any of the concepts and practices that are very popular today. All I knew was that I wanted to find a way to take things less personally.

My first approach, based purely on what I thought might work,  and not on any theory whatsoever, was to become an observer in situations where there was a high chance of me taking something personally. For example, if someone was providing negative feedback, I would visualise myself standing outside of the conversation, watching someone providing negative feedback to someone who just happened to be like me. Then, as the observer, I would try to objectively establish whether the feedback was justified, and I would use this to determine an appropriate response. This approach worked well for me.

Some time later, I started to learn about emotional intelligence and emotional quotient. This enabled me to further develop my skills and approach.

One tool that has helped me in recent years is to understand the difference between assessments and assertions. Assertions are statements that are supported by fact and can be right or wrong – for example “the sky is blue”, “Mary is a doctor”. An assessment is basically an opinion. It is based on the evidence that we have available to us but, unlike an assertion, society has no rules or standards that can be applied to make it right or wrong. For example, “Mary is a good doctor”, “Mary is an excellent doctor” or “Mary is a bad doctor”. We can try to ground an assessment by looking at the evidence that we have available to us. It still won’t make the assessment right or wrong, but it helps us to further understand the basis of the assessment. For example, I may have had a number of experiences where Mary the doctor misdiagnosed me, or gave me medication that didn’t help. Examining this evidence may help to ground my assessment that Mary is a bad doctor. Someone else may be amazed that Mary was able to diagnose their “head cold” as pneumonia, enabling them to be treated before becoming terribly ill. Examining this evidence may help them to ground their assessment that Mary is an excellent doctor. So, two very different assessments, but both with evidence that seems to ground them.

So, why does understanding assessments and assertions help to not take things personally? Well, I found that this helped me in many ways. Firstly, understanding that an assessment is basically an opinion with no right or wrong helped me to take the focus off right and wrong. If there is no right or wrong, then I don’t need to judge myself so harshly if someone else’s opinion differs to mine. Additionally, if there is no right or wrong,  then it is perfectly reasonable that my own assessments also carry validity, even if they are different to the assessments made by others. It also helped me to understand that different people may all assess a situation differently and, based on their interpretation of a situation, they may even be able to ground their different assessments against the evidence that they each have.

So, if someone is giving me negative feedback, I try to look at what evidence they used to make that assessment. If I feel the assessment is grounded, I can then accept that and make a choice to change my behaviour to support the assessments that I would like them to make. If I don’t feel that the assessment is grounded, then I can accept that and respond appropriately. Ultimately, the benefit to me is that I am taking my ego out of the equation because I understand that an opinion is an assessment and I know that there is no right or wrong to measure myself against.

Do you take things too personally? What might you be able to achieve if you take things less personally?

Note: Assessments and assertions have really helped me with much of my learning. If you feel that they would be of benefit to you, you might like to visit this link.


The single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place.

George Bernard Shaw

My assessment about communication is this – Do it. Always. It is that simple. And, by communicating always, I mean to all stakeholders.

Many years ago, whilst in a job interview, I remember being asked how I would handle a specific situation. I gave an example and described how I had handled it. The interviewer responded with “That’s great! Ultimately, it’s all about communication! Without communication, there is no leadership”.

I have thought about this comment many times since that day and one observation that I will make is that, in workplaces where I have felt that leadership was poor, there appeared to be no effective communication. I haven’t quite worked out whether the converse is completely true. However, my assessment is that this interviewer was on to something – as a leader, communication is paramount.

There are methodologies and techniques available for communicating in various situations – be it a difficult conversation, a performance management discussion, regular daily communication, etc. However, my feeling is that the following are can be applied generally to most communication:

  • Have the missing conversation. What do I mean by this? Well, it is simple. Don’t just assume something without making the effort to find out the real story, from multiple sides if appropriate. Don’t allow people to get away with poor behaviour through fear of saying “the wrong thing” to them. Provide feedback to people, whether positive or otherwise. Make it constructive, but don’t be afraid to say it. Ensure that all stakeholders know about the change in direction. If there is a conversation to be had, the best way to demonstrate leadership is to have it. So many issues could be avoided in the workplace if people committed to having necessary conversations.
  • Make clear requests to individuals and/or teams, and ensure that their commitment to deliver (according to agreed standards, timeframe, outcome, etc) has been received. Confirm this, don’t assume it.
  • Leave all parties feeling respected and valued. It doesn’t matter what the conversation is about, leaving people feeling respected and valued is important.
  • Communicate direction, requirements and issues promptly.
  • Tailor communication to the appropriate audience.
  • If unsure as to how to present a message, try to picture yourself in the shoes of the recipient. How could the message be delivered to you in a way that would serve you?
  • Remember that remote team members may require additional effort in communication. They don’t always get to receive the “water cooler” conversations that people who work in the same office do, so it is even more important to ensure that they feel included, valued, respected and supported.

Communication in everything is key but, in leadership, it is essential. Be sure to have the missing conversations, and be sure to try and understand the perspective of all parties.

How is your current communication style serving you?

How’s that Ego?

True leaders understand that leadership is not about them but about those they serve. It is not about exalting themselves but about lifting others up.

Sheri L. Dew

I remember when I first accepted a management position. I naively thought that having the word “manager” in my title would help me to achieve results. I considered team successes to be my doing and, well, I had an ego.

But an ego is fine, right? There is nothing wrong with a little self-confidence…

Good try, but ego and self-confidence are two very different concepts. Ego is about self-interest. Self-confidence is about believing in ourselves, and having faith in our own abilities. It is possible to have one and not the other. Because ego is about self-interest, it can result in bad behaviour. This article explains the difference very well.

A leader who is prepared to forgo self-interest is a leader who has every chance of serving their team and working towards great results. The reason for this is that everything starts to become about the team and the outcomes, rather than the leader. This opens up a whole new world of decision making, and a whole new view of the world.

I remember one day a few years ago, one of the most senior leaders on the account that I was working on instructed my team to complete some work that fell within the scope of another team. I advised this leader that it was still under the control of that team, but offered to provide assistance if required. My team was funded for specific tasks, so focussing on this task would remove them from a funded task on to one that, under our contract, we would not receive revenue. It would also place our funded tasks at risk. Additionally, only the other team had the authorisations and access required to complete the requested task. The response from this leader was “You mark my words. Your team WILL be doing this, and they WILL have this done by the end of the day, or else!”

In my assessment, this is an example of ego. An agreement had been made between this leader and the client that my team would do this. The leader had made the agreement without an understanding of what was involved, and with no consultation with the appropriate teams. Instead of realising their error and learning from it, the leader responded to the professional opinion of the team by becoming defensive and making it about them and how they felt. This behaviour was not enabling my team or the organisation to succeed. In my assessment, it set the team up to fail, because it meant that they had to re-direct their focus from funded activities in order to get something working over which they had absolutely no control and no authority to do so. This is not serving the team.

It is great to have self-confidence, but don’t confuse it with ego. Keep the self-confidence; you’ll need it. However, perhaps it is worth looking at how ego serves you. Leadership is not about receiving personal accolades. It is not about you at all. It is about serving a team in a way that ensures that team is empowered to be the best that they can be. It is about focussing on outcomes. My feeling is that, in the example above, a leader who could manage their ego would have worked with me to determine the best outcome for the team and the client. They would not have let their ego get in the way of an outcome. They would have approached the team and arrived at a solution (based on the professional recommendations of the team) before committing to the client.

A colleague for whom I have a significant amount of respect once explained this to me very well, albeit in a manner that was neither politically correct nor eloquent. He said “There is no I in team, but there is one in d*ckhead. Be a team, not a d*ckhead.”

Check your ego. How is it serving you?

Be Prepared to Give Someone the Chance to be Helpful

Refusing to ask for help when you need it is refusing someone the chance to be helpful.

Ric Ocasek

Asking for help can be frightening and challenging, and maybe even slightly damaging to the ego. My suggestion is to ask for help anyway, then celebrate that you were not only able to identify that help would be useful, you were able to ask for it as well. That’s huge!

I have had a number of occasions over the years when I have identified that help would be useful and I have had great outcomes as a result of asking for and accepting that help. I have also a number of times where I didn’t identify that help would have been useful, and the outcome wasn’t great.

For me, asking for help does not come naturally. I have really had to work at it. Losing some ego helped. Realising that I am respect worthy also helped significantly. For, if I am respect worthy, then I am worthy of respect for realising that asking for help will serve me. I won’t judge myself for it; I will respect myself for it.

I currently work in a very supportive workplace, where people will drop everything to help a colleague. It is a very healthy culture, and it is wonderful. But, even in a wonderful culture like this one, it is important to remember that you may still have to ask for help. People are focussing on their own issues and, as genuine and willing as they may be, they just may not notice that you are struggling. Or, they might think that you are coping fine without them. Or, they might think that you just don’t want help. Have the missing conversation with them, and tell them what you need. They will respect you for it and, you may also respect yourself for it. So many times over the years, I have kept trying and kept trying until things have got completely out of hand, and I have realised that if I had just asked for help, the outcome may have been different.

One occasion on which I did identify that I wanted help was a couple of years ago, when in a very challenging leadership role. It was a brand new programme, with processes not really in place, and a culture that wasn’t conducive to outcomes. My assessment is that the programme leadership was not at its best, and I felt that my own leadership was starting to suffer as a result. My self doubt increased, and I identified that I wasn’t heading in a direction that was going to work for me. I made the decision to seek help in the form of executive coaching. It was tough to admit to someone that I didn’t have all of the answers, and it was tough realising that some of my behaviours weren’t serving me well as a leader. However, this became one of the biggest learning moments of my career, and helped to steer me in a direction that worked for me. Asking for help can have fantastic results and, on this occasion, it did for me!

Your request for help may be for a single, specific situation; it may be for a single skill that you would like to develop; or, like me, it may result in a huge overhaul of how you are being as a leader. Whatever it is, though, always be willing to give someone the chance to be helpful. And, when you have done that, remember to congratulate yourself for doing so.