What is Leadership? Defining Leadership and What Leaders Do

If I told you I was a carpenter or a mechanic or a lawyer or a police officer, you would have a pretty good idea of what I do. When I tell people I work in multi-site management, they mostly say the same thing: “So what do you do, like go in and check up on the workers or something?” Really people? Is that what you think I’m doing over here? I do way more than that. “Like what?”

You’re not the only one who wonders what managers are doing all day. Frankly, we’ve all seen our share of lousy bosses, and God only knows what they’re doing all day. Maybe a better question is, “What are managers supposed to be doing all day?”


The primary job of a manager is to provide leadership for their team, that is, to be a leader.

So there you have it. I’m a leader and I do leadership stuff all day. Got it?

“Wait, what is leadership?” you ask? “Sounds like another business buzz word.” A fair challenge. So in this post, I’m going to give you my definition of leadership.

First things first, let me be precise in what I’m defining here, because leadership happens in different ways. You have your spontaneous leadership, where a leader emerges as a group of people share an experience, versus your more formal permanent leadership roles. I’m taking about the latter here, where it is your job to be a leader. Of course, everyone can, should, and will need to be a leader at different times in their life or career, but this definition is aimed at those of us who do it for a living.

Then you have your different styles or models or subcategories of leadership. Some of my favorite models are authentic leadership, situational leadership, transformational leadership, and servant leadership (my personal favorite, and the reason I work for my current company). This post is about what the great models of leadership have in common, that is, a meta-definition of leadership in the business world, which is surprisingly hard to pin down.

OK, with those clarifying points out of the way, I present to you my working definition of leadership:

Leadership is a collection of behaviors that, when acted out by one person, directly result in a surrounding group of people achieving a goal they otherwise would not have.

I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about that definition, and I think it’s pretty darn good. I’d like to unpack each of the component parts a bit.

Leadership is a Collection of Behaviors

And that’s good news. Behaviors and skills can be learned and improved by those willing to practice them.

So does that mean leaders are made and not born? Not exactly. I think certain personality types, like those high in conscientiousness for example, create a tendency towards leadership. I also think intelligence helps, since leadership is knowledge work. I think of intelligence and personality tendencies like the hardware of a leader, and our hardware is not very malleable if at all. That doesn’t mean that people who are hardwired for leadership have an easy path forward. You need a refined operating system, and the software of leadership are skills and behaviors that have to be practiced and improved over a long period of time.

We could probably brainstorm dozens of positive leadership behaviors, but here are my three most important behaviors (or maybe collections of behaviors) for every leader to practice:

  1. Self Discipline. Otherwise known as leading by example. Leadership is not about what the leader wants other people to do. Leadership starts with the leader taking ownership of his or her own personal behaviors. Leaders must act authentically, that is in line with their values, so self discipline starts with self discovery. What are my values and goals? A clearly articulated plan for the future informs the leader’s decision making, which is important, because making values-based decisions is part of what leaders do.
  2. Communication. You have two ears, two eyes, and one mouth, which means that God wanted us to spend 40% of our time listening, 40% of our time paying attention and 20% of our time talking. Pay attention to everything relevant that you can see: the physical space you’re leading in, the non-verbal communication of the team, the reports and analytics of the business. Listen to everyone, especially those who are customer facing, subordinate leaders who are responsible for distributing the org’s values, and to direct reports, your partners in your leadership journey. When talking or writing, be clear, concise, and help others understand your intentions. Help them see the big picture, and remind them of the vision.
  3. Optimism.  Leaders have to believe that they and their teams can create a better future. A leader must have a genuine desire to serve others. It’s one of the prerequisites for being a leader, which sounds obvious, but I meet people all the time in formal leadership roles that would much rather not have them. Logic and insight alone won’t make the future a better place. Leaders need to find their passion and use their emotions when communicating their vision of the brighter future.

Leadership is Acted Out by One Person, The Leader

In situations where there is no formally identified leader (i.e. by title), one of two things happens: either one person emerges as the de facto leader or the team falls apart. Many people on the team can be leaders at different times, but one person has to be the leader, and if you are a manager, than that person is you. You own it.

This is why leaders need to be inwardly focused. Leadership is not about getting other people to do things. Leadership is about becoming the person who inspires others to want to follow you. Think about the great leaders you have followed in your past, maybe a great boss, teacher, or coach. Did he or she coerce,  force, or blame you into following them? Or was there just something about them that made you want to be better. Without ever saying a word the great leaders from my past could just shoot me a look, and I would want to run through a brick wall for them.

A leader can never blame the team for his failures. If the team is not achieving its goals, the leader needs to look inward to find out what he did wrong, where he missed the mark, causing the team to fail.

Leading a Group of People, The Followers

You can’t be a leader without followers, and followers have to be earned. Sure, if you get a management title at work and they assign you some direct reports, you’ll have employees, but you can’t force people to follow you and people don’t follow titles, not for long anyway. People have to want to follow you. People have to believe that if they follow your lead their lives will be better, that they’ll move closer to their goals and farther away from failure.

Earning followers takes a lot of hard work. People want to be heard, understood, and respected. People want to know whether or not their efforts in the workplace will help them achieve their personal goals. People want to know where the leader is going before they follow. Good leaders invest their time in understanding the range motivations and goals of the individuals on a team. Good leaders involve their followers in architecting the future, and they build buy-in and consensus.

But a leader can’t stand still forever. This is part of the art of leadership. Spend too much time building understanding, and you could lose momentum or initiative or become paralyzed by too many differing opinions. Don’t spend enough time on understanding the people, and they won’t trust you. The art comes from developing your instincts over time. When your instincts tell you to go, it’s time to boldly walk forward. If you’ve done your job right, when you look back, you’ll have a few disciples behind you. If you’ve failed, you’ll be all alone.

Achieving a Goal That Would Not Have Been Otherwise Achieved, The Vision

The key prerequisite for being a leader is that you have to be going somewhere. I’ve mentioned having a vision a few times already in this post. This is so important, yet so hard to do. It’s hard to articulate a compelling future that would be better for those you serve as individuals and better for the collective organization, and not only better for both now, but tomorrow and in the future, across longer stretches of time. And the vision does have to be compelling, because you’ll likely be asking each follower to make some short term sacrifices that you’re promising will pay off for them in the future. That’s a big ask, especially in today’s instant gratification culture, in a hot job market, and when working with millennials who want the whole world and they want it now (this elder millennial is included in that dig).

A leader who has no clear destination is lost, and his followers’ destiny is left to chance. A leader who can’t lead his followers towards achieving a goal that benefits them and the team is a false prophet.

JFK was going to the moon. MLK had a dream. Christ was leading his disciples to eternal life. Where are you going?

Someone important to me recently told me that “it matters what you see when you look back.” I think he was talking about legacy and about doing something good and lasting with your career. I think that’s a great goal for a leader, to leave as many people as you can better off than when you found them. That’s leadership. That’s what I’m trying to do.

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