OK, I know this sounds like the most prosaic of questions, but it is also deeply misunderstood. So, let’s try to clarify a little of what leadership is and what it is not.
1 – A leader must have followers
Without followers a leader is simply a lone voice. As in the excellent Derek Sivers video, a leader nurtures followers, empowering and enabling them to be as effective in their own ways as they can be, in service of the agreed cause.
2 – Leadership is a choice not an appointment
Leadership is a big commitment, just being appointed to a leadership position is not enough. To become a leader you have to make the choice to lead and you have to learn to lead yourself, before you can lead others. For example a leader has the self discipline and the wisdom to make the right choices in the moment regardless of their own emotional state.
3 – Leadership is an art and a skill not a process
Any great leaders you have ever come across have worked at it. They will have identified areas for self improvement and worked on them. As Bruce Lee said “I fear not the man who has practiced 10,000 kicks once, but I fear the man who has practiced one kick 10,000 times.” By practicing their actions and reactions leaders can free up mental bandwidth for other activities like reading people and situations better.
4 – Leaders enable people to do more than they knew they were capable of
Leaders want the most efficient and effective way to realise the cause. They know that to find that reliably they need the maximum contribution and collaboration. Leaders constantly coach, inspire and engage to bring out the best in everyone.
5 – Leadership is a service
A leaders first responsibility is to their followers, the organisation is served by the followers being at their best. The individual leader benefits as a by product of the success of the team and the organisation.
6 – Leadership is change, change is leadership
Change is part of the distinction between managers and leaders. Managers are looking for changes to process, leaders are looking for processes to change. If leadership is happening then things are changing.
7 – Leaders lead culture not performance
Whatever results an organisation achieves – positive or negative, intended or unintended – are accomplished by through the culture. It follows that to get the intended results an organisation must have an appropriate culture. It is the role of leaders to create and curate the appropriate culture for the intended results.
And what it is not:
1 – Leadership is not about control, obedience or fear
Many of our role models of leadership, since school, have been “controllers”. Controllers do not get the best out of people, they impose their own ideas of what is right on people and leave them feeling insecure. No one performs at their best when feeling insecure.
2 – Leadership is not management
Words are important and these two words are often used interchangeably. They mean quite different things and need to be used intentionally. We are all likely to both lead and manage in different circumstances, we might do both in a single day. In this context managing is about engaging people with tasks or processes and ensuring they are done effectively. Leadership is about aligning people to change and helping them to go through it effectively.
3 – A leader does not have to be the author of the cause, the code or the strategy
Many potential leaders get lost because they feel they need to know the answers to important questions like what cause are we hear to pursue, what code of behaviour do we need to follow and what is our strategy. In truth the role of the leader is to ensure that those questions are answered satisfactorily and to be the most powerful embodiment of those answers, but the answers could come from the team, from other leaders or from the past.
4 – A leader does not prioritise conformity or harmony over effectiveness
Homogenous teams are able to become effective more quickly, but diverse teams are able to be more effective, precisely because they have a broader perspective. The most effective teams marry psychological safety with diverse backgrounds and opinions and robust debate. The most effective leaders are able to quickly harness diversity and creative tension into effectiveness.
5 – Leadership is not hierarchical
Another common misunderstanding is that leadership is hierarchical. Leadership is an activity not a role and it can be practiced in any direction. It is perfectly possible and often desirable to lead upwards and sideways, the same principles apply, although the approach may differ according to the audience.
6 – Leadership is not lonely it’s a team sport
Another common misunderstanding about leadership is “the loneliness of leadership” I would go as far as to say, if it feels lonely you are doing it wrong. Leadership is, by definition a team sport. Yes, the responsibility ultimately lies with the leader and there will be conversations and decisions that the leader has to take, but a leader’s default should be to share with the team and they should always have support structures, coaches and mentors who can help in the situations where it is not appropriate to involve team members.
It is also worth bearing in mind that leaders are frequently considered to be disruptive in organisations – because they are. If you are considered disruptive, it may be because you have leadership tendencies, your opportunity lies in investing in that potential, studying and practicing so that you can realise it.
From the other side, perhaps you have people in your organisation who are considered disruptive. Perhaps now is the time to revaluate them and perhaps even invest in them as the future of your organisation.
At Holos we have been studying change leadership and leadership training in the crucible of reality for years. We know what great leadership looks like and we know the journey to achieve it. We have developed a suite of diagnostic tools to understand where companies and teams are on this journey and how to take them from there to sustained success.
Holos has a wealth of specialist leadership and culture coaches and consultants with decades of experience working with a huge variety of leaders. Holos can help you or your organisation to upgrade it’s leadership to flourish even in a challenging business environment.
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