When you look for a definition of leadership, it can be easy to get overwhelmed, as there are a multitude of answers. But, for me, that’s what makes the topic so rich. It’s one of those concepts that doesn’t just have one clean-cut description. I think of it as a kaleidoscope — there are many different things to see and discover, especially as the turn of a situation or a change in direction can require a different type of leadership.
To add to its multifaceted identity, it carries with it a lot of importance. If you think about it, the presence of effective leadership in our companies, nonprofits, governments and communities can have a tremendous impact on many, many people. The application of leadership can grow companies, solve big problems, alter policy, change lives, and determine the future. And the absence of it, or of an effective version of it, can cause equally as much damage. There’s a lot at stake here.
So that brings us back to the question of “What is it?!” In all my reading, studying about and living through leadership, I believe there are a handful of core, must-have aspects:
- Leadership is about influence: In contrast to authority or power, influence is the capacity to have an effect on the character, development or behavior of someone or something. That effect occurs without compulsion, but happens organically due to the relationship and respect that exists between a leader and followers, or because of the pure merit of the leader or their ideals. Additionally, having influence does not require that a leader be a person of certain position or title.
- Leadership aims towards a shared vision: Leadership is aspirational. It looks into the future and to what’s possible, towards a shared goal and vision for the team — something to be accomplished. This vision is most effectively formed collaboratively within a team, but is then championed and further influenced by a leader.
- Leadership creates followers: This occurs naturally, as effective leaders possess a certain gravitational field that attracts others due to a palpable sense of clarity, momentum, action, integrity and vision. True followers can not be compelled. Again, the ability to create followers doesn’t require that a leader be of any certain position or title.
- Leadership empowers equally and outwardly: The focus of leadership is on empowering the followers and enlivening the vision rather than on a leader themselves. A leader is attentive to each of the respective team members and cares about empowering them to step into their greater potential.
- Leadership is authentic: Most simply put, leaders walk their talk. They set an example for others on a team. They keep their word and they communicate openly. They create relationships of trust.
- Leadership, a rich topic of many definitions, carries with it great importance for the future of our organizations and communities
- Though there are multiple perspectives on leadership, I believe there are five essential elements:
- Leadership is about influence
- Leadership aims towards a vision
- Leadership creates followers
- Leadership empowers equally and outwardly
- Leadership is authentic
Try This Out
- Begin a discussion with your team about what constitutes leadership. Start with a clean slate and see what essentials rise to the top. Even if the outcome doesn’t match my proposed list of essentials, it will create an empowering context for all team members to step up their game and take on the task of leadership
- Focus on one of the five essentials that you feel farthest from as a leader and build capacity in that area
- Think of what leaders are present in your life. Make a list of expectations you have of them. Then, reflect on what expectations your followers may have of you as a leader.
- Pick an influential historical or political leader and read about their work and its impact
Favorite Leadership Quotes
“All Leadership is influence.” — John C. Maxwell
“Leadership is the capacity to translate vision into reality.” — Warren Bennis
“A leader’s role is to raise people’s aspirations for what they can become and to release their energies so they will try to get there.” — David R. Gergen
“A leader is one who knows the way, goes the way, and shows the way.” — John C. Maxwell
“As we look ahead into the next century, leaders will be those who empower others.” — Bill Gates