Leadership: Is what exactly?
Definitions abound. With all definitions, it is important to describe the nature of the term including all the relevant elements required to distinguish the thing being defined from anything else.
For the purposes of this insight article, here is a good working start:
“Leadership is a process of social influence, which maximizes the efforts of others, towards the achievement of a goal.” (1)
Why is this a good start?
It delivers the following key elements:
1. Leadership stems from social influence, not authority or power
2. Leadership requires others (followers), going beyond the notion of “direct reports”
3. It includes a goal; an intended outcome.
4. The inclusion of “maximizes the efforts”. Engaged people are far more likely to go ‘above and beyond’.
5. There is no mention of personality traits, attributes, or job title (there can be many styles and paths to effective leadership).
So does this work for you? Have I missed anything you regard as vital?
While you are thinking about this, I am going to summarise what leadership isn’t.
1. Leadership has nothing to do with seniority or position in the company hierarchy. We need to be clear about the distinction between senior executives and leadership. There should be significant overlap but it is definitely not a given.
2. Leadership has nothing to do with job titles. Same argument as in 1 - you don’t need a title to lead.
3. More controversially, Leadership has nothing to do with a specific set of personal attributes. Leaders most certainly do not have to be domineering, take-charge, charismatic individuals. It is not a requirement to have extroverted, ‘larger than life’ traits to be worthy of followers. Those with charisma don’t have to automatically lead.
4. Leadership is definitely different from management. Managers need to plan, measure, monitor, coordinate, solve, hire, fire, and so many other things. Typically, managers manage effective resources usage. Leaders lead people.
W.C.H. Prentice comments: “The leader’s unique achievement is a human and social one which stems from their understanding of fellow workers and the relationship of their individual goals to the group goal that they all must carry out.”(2) (pronouns adjusted).
This succinct summary begs the question of how the leader goes about this and it is at this point that the subject explodes into a plethora of styles, skills, attributes, behaviours and priorities.
Literature has, over the years, recognised that leadership is about dealing with people and people are organic and complex. Unsurprisingly, thinking of the organisations that they make up in a similar manner is beneficial in identifying effective leadership approaches.
If we consider further the underlying basis for human organisation structures, we operate in sub groups of a size where the person at the head (leading) can be close enough to all the people to know them well, understanding their varying motivations. In an effective organisation, all these sub groups can be combined into larger aligned groups, delivering the goal or goals referred to in our original definition.
Returning to how a leader works with people, Dale Carnegie (3) is perhaps the most famous business name to be a major advocate of the ‘Golden Rule’:
Treat others as you would like to be treated. It is a rerun of the biblical text, ‘Do to others as you would have them do to you.’(4)
However, this maxim comes with a serious caveat: all people are not the same. Being treated the same and expecting each person to respond the same is naive. A similarity of outcome requires a variety of approaches to achieve the goal.
Beyond the individual interaction, there is the overarching impact of how groups of people work together. They share certain approaches, common ways of viewing things, experiences that they have been through together: in short, a culture.
Effective leadership must operate intelligently within this construct, which is why emotional intelligence has been given such prominence in more recent times.
It also gives us clear clues on why ‘culture eats strategy for breakfast’ (see papers on these topics) and why culture, strategy, purpose and leadership need to be aligned!
(1) Kruse K, (2013): What is Leadership? Forbes
(2) Prentice W C H (2004): Understanding Leadership. Harvard Business Review January
(3) Carnegie, D, (1936): How to Win Friends and Influence People. Simon & Schuster
(4) Luke: Gospel, Chapter 6 verse 31, New Testament, New International Version Bible