What is Leadership?
Leadership is increasingly an area of academic study. People often think of leaders as the ‘people in charge’, the boss, or manager. However, this is not what a leader is.
While a leader might be in an obvious position of authority, being a leader requires a lot more than a position or title. Many people who work in positions of authority are better described as managers – they have authority, they tell people what to do and when to do it, but they don’t influence those around them to achieve goals.
Let’s define what a leader is and then we can think about different situations where you might see a leader.
A leader is someone who has the capacity to influence others to work toward a common goal for the benefit of those in the group, or others beyond the group.
Authority Does Not Define a Leader
Before we discuss what leaders are, let’s first look at what leaders are not.
People in authority are often thought of as leaders, but do they fit our description? These obvious examples suggest not.
- A Judge is someone who sits in a court and hears cases. They are given authority and have enormous power over people’s lives. That power might involve determining someone’s guilt or innocence and sending them to prison, or hearing a case involving some kind of compensation where someone is ordered to pay money (often a lot of money) for some type of wrongdoing. A judge might have authority and power, but they can’t be described as a leader because they aren’t attempting to influence someone to achieve a goal.
- A Manager has a certain amount of authority whose function involves ensuring that a team gets certain things done to achieve goals. This sounds more like a situation of leadership, and it can be. However, many managers operate within a range of predetermined criteria and have only a limited number of decisions available to them. Their goal is to make sure that everyone is doing the things required of them, sometimes with a command and control approach. This person is not a leader because there is no attempt to influence other people, they simply direct others within the bounds of limited criteria.
Leaders are focused on helping and lifting people – they influence people to develop and work toward goals. Those goals may help individuals within the group develop and grow. They become more than they thought they could. Leaders use a range of relational skills to engage the people they are working with.
These are some more obvious examples of people who might be considered leaders:
- An Inspiring Politician. Of course not all politicians are inspiring leaders, but some have been. Think about people like John F Kennedy and Winston Churchill who gave inspiring speeches that sought to take their audiences on a journey with them, to inspire people to come together and work toward goals.
- A Leader for Change. While not an elected politician, people like Martin Luther King inspired and influenced people to embark on a journey of racial equality in the USA. He influenced people to work toward a goal, this make him a leader.
- Corporate Leaders. Some corporate leaders do so by influencing those around them to grow and work toward common goals. Elon Musk, whatever one thinks of his particularly style, meets the standard of our definition. He is someone who has inspired and influenced people around him to work toward common goals, often goals that have never before been achieved, like developing electric cars, private space agencies and even a swarm of satellites to provide internet to the world.
However, while most people would see these obvious examples, leaders are found in many other places too.
- A Local Scout Master. A local scout master is just one example of someone who leads a group in the community. A scout master might be responsible for leading young people toward specific short term goals, but also for helping develop character. The scout master would do this by positively influencing the young people to achieve goals and this would qualify them as a leader. Of course there may be many types of activity that allow someone to lead – think about school teachers, sports teams, directors of orchestras, plays and so on.
- A Middle Manager. The point has already been made that a manager is not necessarily a leader – if they don’t influence people to work toward a goal, they probably wouldn’t qualify as leaders. However, a middle manager is capable of leadership. If a manager positively influences those around them to achieve goals, especially if this includes helping them develop as professionals and people, then they are probably serving as a leaders. Interestingly, research shows that when middle managers become leaders the company they work for benefits enormously with improved culture and profit.
- A Family Leader. Another example is someone who leads a family. Families used to be referred to as matriarchal or patriarchal groups – i.e., they were led by the senior woman or senior man in the family. In reality though, the gender or status of the person involved is not that important. What is important is that there is someone within the family who brings the family members together, influences them, and brings them together to work on goals and directions for the benefit of the family and themselves as individuals.
This is what everyone wants to know, what does it take to be a leader? A common fallacy is that leaders are born that way – they just seem to have the skills, there is something about them that is different. However, this is not the case. Leaders are not born they are made. Nowadays there are many leadership programs and courses designed to help people develop the skills they need to become leaders. Of course there are many facets of being a great leader, consider the following headings.
Relational skills refer to a person’s ability to relate to others. Self-awareness is an important part of this, but there is more. Having good relational skills requires:
- Self- awareness is a strong predictor of leadership success. It allows the person to be conscious of their own feelings and behaviour, especially during interactions with others. Armed with this awareness, the person can then modify their responses in the face of challenges during the interaction to ensure the best outcomes.
- Psychological awareness helps the leader understand other people’s feelings and behaviour. This valable understanding creates an environment which ensure the leader is not just driven by ‘reactions’ to someone, but a thoughtfulness of someone’s responses. This allows the leader to address the other person’s reactions differently, and to focus on underlying issues more accurately.
- Empathy is something that people can do naturally, but when it is part of a thoughtful process that involves trying to understand how someone is feeling and then responding appropriately, it can become a tool for connection. Used this way, empathy creates a pathway to break down barriers and open the door to issues that might otherwise be locked out.
It is probably self evident that communication is an essential criterion for successful leadership. However, communication is more than just putting words together. Only about 7% of communication comes from the meaning of words, the majority of communication comes from non-verbal language which includes things like the tone of voice, facial expressions, posture and movement.
A leader who understands all the elements of communication will be better equipped to understand what people are saying – even the hidden messages. They will also be better equipped to deliver messages more effectively by ensuring that there is alignment between what is said and how it is said.
Leaders and managers spend a lot of time dealing with conflict – in fact some research suggests that more than 40% of a leaders time is spent working on conflict issues. Conflict can occur at almost any level – between team members, between teams, with clients, and with colleagues. Most people find conflict difficult to work with, and some will do almost anything to avoid being involved in a conflict of any kind. While it is true that conflict can be unpleasant, it is also an essential part of life. It is also true that managing conflict doesn’t have to be impossible and good leaders understand how to manage conflict, usually in a way that allows everyone to feel respected and to develop positive outcomes.
Personal and Professional Development
One core aspect of virtually any good leader is their drive for continuous development. It is often described as ‘professional development’ but is more, it includes personal development. The best leaders understand themselves well, have advanced personal skills, and know how to develop others too.
In some ways leadership is complex and some people ‘just seem to have it’. However, the reality is that leaders are not born, they are made, and the most successful leaders have put in a lot of work to develop their skills and themselves.
In my view, and setting aside the technical aspects of leadership in unique situations (like leading a hospital), almost all the qualities of leaders require psychological awareness which becomes the gateway to virtually all the other characteristics of leadership: self-awareness, relationship skills, communication skills and conflict management.
Interest? Read more in my latest book, ‘Five Skills That Make Great