Leadership comes in many guises

When you think of the word ‘leadership’ and how you’d define it, you’re spoiled for choice if you look up that word in a dictionary on the net. Try this Google definition search, for example, and then decide which of the many choices fit.

The definition really depends on what situation you want to apply it to. Politics, business, military, religious, etc – the definition will vary depending on the context.

While I certainly accept there are some common attributes that will apply to any definition, I don’t believe there is a one-fits-all definition.

For instance, these quotations come from AskOxford.com, the free online dictionaries from the Oxford University Press, from people who, by anyone’s judgement, would be regarded as leaders:

  • “To grasp and hold a vision, that is the very essence of successful leadership” – Ronald Reagan (actor and US President)
  • “By the structure of the world we often want, at the sudden occurrence of a grave tempest, to change the helmsman – to replace the pilot of the calm by the pilot of the storm” – Walter Bagehot (19th century British writer and philosopher, author of The English Constitution)
  • “The art of leadership is saying no, not yes. It is very easy to say yes” – Tony Blair (British Prime Minister)
  • “The final test of a leader is that he leaves behind him in other men the conviction and the will to carry on” – Walter Lippmann (US writer and political commentator)
  • “The art of leadership…consists in consolidating the attention of the people against a single adversary and taking care that nothing will split up that attention” – Adolf Hitler (German dictator)

If you think about them, each one (even Hitler’s) is valid in the business context, which is my focus here. Yet none of such definitions helps you zero in on that ‘X factor’ – what it is that really defines leadership in a way that’s relevant to most people in business.

Then I read Leadership Is Just One Thing, a thought-provoking post yesterday by Lisa Haneberg in her Management Craft blog.

Her concluding definition:

Leadership is the special energy we put to our work that makes a powerful difference. Leadership can be applied to every aspect of work. Many people who fail to demonstrate leadership don’t have their hearts in it. Leadership requires much more than being smart and in charge.

Great, you might think, but it still doesn’t get that ‘X factor.’

And here’s the beauty of Lisa’s post. In leading up to her conclusion, she defines the one thing that’s the title of her post by building the concluding definition layer by layer, explaining each layer in the process. I’m not going to spoil it here – treat yourself and read Lisa’s post in its entirety. She has a cool visual depiction of her definition, too.

A great source of practical inspiration when you think about leadership as you sit in your office worrying about budgets, hitting sales targets or planning those performance reviews – yes, the day-to-day middle stuff that drives business and which concerns most of us – is How To Manage Smart People, a manifesto by Scott Berkun which you can download from ChangeThis. I posted commentary about this last week.

There’s a key defining statement in the early part of Scott’s publication that applies here. I’ve changed one word in that statement – substituting ‘leader’ for ‘manager’ – so it will look like this:

[Leaders] have more to do with enabling the happiness and productivity of the people that work for them than anyone else in the organization. A [leader], at any level of hierarchy, from line project manager to CEO, has an emotional responsibility to their reports, or to the people who are dependent on them. Like a parent in a family, or a coach of a sports team, a [leader] sets the tone for dialogue (open and thoughtful, or defensive and confrontational?), enables or prevents a fun work environment, and interprets or ignores the corporate rules and structure, for a daily practice of shared work.

Leadership does come in many guises.