What Is Leadership?

LeadershipGoogle the word “leadership”- go ahead, I’ll wait… I did as I wrote this post, and my search returned 312 million results. Amazon carries more than 100,000 titles on the topic, with more arriving at their warehouses every day. Each of those, in turn, presents its unique rundown of 5 rules, 11 new rules, 21 irrefutable laws, and so on. The Wikipedia entry for leadership would run to nearly 40 printed pages and lays out no fewer than eight distinct styles of leadership – and some leadership gurus would argue that they’ve missed at least another eight! Entire blogs publish on this topic, and this topic alone.

For my part, while the topic of leadership underscores just about every other topic I’ve written about over the course of the past seven or so years and is at the heart of the work I do today, I’ve never actually presented my POV on the subject of great leadership itself in even a single post. Strange — because clearly, I believe that leadership (and not just any leadership, but great leadership) is instrumental to the success of your business. That said, given the sheer volume of leadership opinion available online and off, does the world need yet another opinion. Probably not. In fact, it would seem that seasoned executives have an awful lot to unlearn then relearn just to bring their management styles up-to-date, and that less seasoned entrepreneurs face a steep learning curve.

So rather than add more complexity, for the purpose of this post I’d like to keep things simple. So let’s explore a deceptively simple question and the (existing) answer that I believe does the best job of cutting through the noise.

What Is Leadership?

The question is deceptive because, for all its seeming simplicity, there isn’t necessarily one right reply. If you ask 10 people, you’re likely to get 13 different points of view.

Personally, I like a rather broad definition offered up by serial entrepreneur, leadership expert and bestselling author Kevin Kruse in a Forbes article from earlier this year. I’m not convinced it breaks much new ground (does a definition of such a timeless concept truly need to be new?) and it certainly picks up on leadership thinking that has become increasingly common over the past several years. But for clients who need help framing leadership as a concept (such as rising stars as they grow into positions of greater authority, or even individual contributors who may not think of themselves as leaders per se), it’s a definition I turn to often for its simplicity, clarity, relevancy, and lack of gimmickry.

Kruse defines leadership as “a process of social influence, which maximizes the efforts of others, towards the achievement of a goal.”

For me, this definition makes a few things amply clear. First, leadership isn’t about being the boss, and isn’t bestowed upon you by the simple fact that you are the boss. You might be the founder, the funder or the CEO – but you might not actually be a leader. Instead, leadership (like it’s cousin stewardship, for example) isn’t a role but a process – specifically a process of influence; meaning those you choose to lead must also choose to be led — and choose you, in particular, to lead them.

Second, the impact of leadership isn’t seen in the leader herself but in the effect she has on others. By the way, it’s no accident that Kruse uses the word “others” instead of “followers,” “employees” or some other term that conveys direct authority. Those others might, in fact, be employees that report to you; they might also be business partners, industry pundits, peers, and (yes) even your boss, your board or your lead investor. Third, Kruse talks about “achievement.” Just as leadership isn’t something you are but rather something you do, leadership doesn’t end with what you do but rather with the outcomes you create.

Taking Kruse’s thinking further, I’d argue that if a business owner or top executive wants his or her company to scale up, he or she would do well to grasp two fundamental leadership concepts.

Leaders Achieve Results

Whether you’re the CEO or the intern (yes, of course, an intern can be a leader too), this is in essence what you’re getting paid to do. Deliver meaningful, measurable results that contribute to achieving your vision and your objectives. You see, despite connotations to the contrary, leadership isn’t a fuzzy concept or just another one of those so-called unmeasurable soft skills… The quality of your leadership is, in fact, measured by the results it allows you to deliver.

But (and this is a big but), if before you were a leader, success was all about you, your personal performance, your individual contributions, your ability to take the task on and see it through; once you become a leader the main result you must achieve lies in your ability to inspire the success of others, in your ability to build and grow a high-performing team. Which leads me to another key distinction.

Leaders Don’t Create Followers, They Create Other Leaders

I could write an entire book on why people choose to work with people who lift them up, but for any organization that strives for growth the value of creating other leaders is surprisingly straightforward and grounded in business fundamentals. If the people you’ve brought into your organization aren’t growing their mindsets, expanding their skill sets, becoming fit to lead others and lead initiatives (Danger, Will Robinson: there is virtually no correlation between an individual’s ability to be the best at their own job and their ability to inspire others to be the best at theirs) you will never be able to take on the progressively more complex tasks that come with rapid growth. In other words, you need a clear plan and identified successors ready to take on your leadership duties when growth calls you to take on new challenges. Sounds logical enough, but a recent poll of SmartBrief on Leadership readers found that fewer than 8% of organizations have a robust and up-to-date succession plan for all critical roles. And without that, you’re effectively grounded in the face of growth.

Obviously, I’ve only just scratched the surface so I’d love to hear your thoughts as well. How do you define leadership? What are your most important characteristics for great leadership? How do you practice it in your organization today?

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A different version of this post is featured in the e-book Rocket Fuel To Ignite Your Business: 10 Essential Principles To Make Your Startup Scale UpLearn more about this short book and get in touch with me to request your free copy. And if you’re interested in developing your own leadership competencies or creating a succession plan for your organization, get in touch to learn more about how my executive coaching or leadership consulting solutions can help you.

1 Comment

  1. Insightful post Greg. My friend Bill Treasurer sums up leadership in three words: Leaders Open Doors.
    This echoes your second tenet. To effectively lead, you need to open doors and create other leaders.

    Leaders Open Doors is the title of Bill Treasurer’s latest book.The title and lesson came from his Bill’s son. Ian, a pre-schooler, came home one day and proudly proclaimed he had been the leader for the day. When Bill asked what that meant, Ian proudly shared, “I got to open doors for people.”

    FYI – I’m not shilling Bill’s book. I just believe in its message. Plus – all of the proceeds from Bill’s book are donated to kids with special needs.

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