Leadership, what the heck is it?

Think about and write down your own definition of leadership and see if you still feel the same way after reading this post.

Over the years when asked “What is leadership?”, I would provid a clear, concise and confident answer, “leadership is what inspires people to act”. However after being exposed to, and witnessing the state of leadership in recent years, it’s a question that feels much more difficult to answer.

Whether it’s the actions (or inactions) of politicians, police officers or the failings of leadership at a certain not so small ride sharing “startup”, the answer no longer seems obvious. What was simple has become complicated and unclear, leadership is hard to define. Nonetheless it’s worth a try.

I preface this by saying that I will fail to come up with a definition. In fact I am almost certain that it will be a futile attempt as there are simply to many conflicting idea’s around leadership. What’s the difference between Leadership and Management? Were Hitler and Bin Laden leaders? If so what role do ethics and morality play in leadership? Are Leaders born or made? Am I a leader? Are you a leader? To avoid disappointment I recommend you view this as an exploration of leadership rather then a definitive answer.

What’s the difference between Leadership and Management? Were Hitler and Bin Laden leaders? If so what role do ethics and morality play in leadership? Are Leaders born or made? Am I a leader?

To approach the question of what is?, it is helpful to ask who is? As it turns out it is a far easier task, in my opinion to answer the later over the former. When we think of who is a leader four distinct groups come to mind. These groups are Historical Leaders, Organizational Leaders, Inspirational Leaders and Personal Leaders.

Historical leaders include, Lincoln, Gandhi, Napoleon and Jesus to name a few. Essentially these are figures that the majority of people would associate with leadership, they would arguably make the list of the top one hundred leaders of all time. They have led people to emancipation, peace, war and salvation; in other words they have led people to action. They have also made a profound effect on the lives of people. So much so that they are remembered, studied and to this day may affect people’s lives. From these leaders we learn that leadership is about change, sacrifice, greatness and purpose.

From these leaders we learn that leadership is about change, sacrifice, greatness and purpose.

Organizational leaders may consist of Presidents, CEOs, Generals, and Teachers. They are usually appointed, hired or promoted to a leadership position and serve to advance the agenda of their organization. They do this even if it is not inline with their personal beliefs and convictions. A military General for example is guided by his or her duty to country regardless of his or her personal opinion, in the same way that a CEO is guided by his or her shareholders. These leaders may transcend their roles and become leaders outside of their organizations such as Bill Gates the CEO of Microsoft who has become a leader in the world of philanthropy. I point this out, as it demonstrates the dynamic nature of leadership, and why it is difficult to pinpoint a single definition of leadership. Organizational leaders like Bill Gates have expertise, focus, passion and charisma.

Organizational leaders like Bill Gates have expertise, focus, passion and charisma.

Inspirational leaders have a story that makes them leaders either by their voice, their past or present. They may or may not think of themselves as leaders, they may not want to be leaders, but their followers have made them leaders and logic dictates that where there is a follower there must be a leader. Entertainers, heroes, villains, authors and even victims can all be leaders. Yes, even villains can be leaders whether we like it or not is another question altogether. As long as there are figures like Adolph Hitler and Charles Manson who have followers, then they must be leaders as one cannot exist without the other. Victims through their struggles and actions can be inspirational leaders as well, such as a rape victims that speaks out and inspires other women to come forward. Inspirational leaders teach us that leadership is about having a story, overcoming adversity and understanding emotion.

Inspirational leaders teach us that leadership is about having a story, overcoming adversity and understanding emotion.

Personal leadership is like looking at “Micro-Leadership” versus “Macro-Leadership” as far as scope is concerned. It is leadership from close personal and intimate relationships. Fathers, mothers, children, siblings, spouses, friends, and everyday people. Personal leaders usually affect a much narrower scope of people in a very direct and real way. Such as a single mother who is able to support, and raise her children. Arugably the first leader and follower relationship that we experience in life is with our parents. Parents becomes leaders, unwillingly at times, and children their followers in an equally unwilling manner. Personal leadership shows us that leaders rise to the occasion, are defined by their followers, and in turn their followers are defined by them.

Personal leadership shows us that leaders rise to the occasion, are defined by their followers, and in turn their followers are defined by them.

Subsequent to the above exploration of “who is a leader” the logical definition of leadership is:

“Leadership is about creating change through sacrifice, greatness, purpose, expertise, focus, passion, charisma, having a story, over coming adversity, understanding emotion, rising to the occasion, and having committed followers.”

Is this the right definition? Probably not. Regardless of whether you agree with the definition, the more important point is to focus on the next set of questions this leads to. Can leadership be defined? , if so why is it so elusive?

Upon reflecting on Leadership I can’t help but feel that defining “What is Leadership?” is like answering the question “What is Love?” and my answer to both is that Leadership and Love is in the eye of the beholder.

Leadership is a concept rather then a specific definable static trait. The definition changes over time and between different people. To avoid being completely inconclusive I will end with the only definite conclusion on leadership that I believe is universals among all thoughts of leadership, “Leaders must have followers and followers must have leaders.”