Too many definitions and not enough clarity may be holding too many back from becoming truly effective leaders
There are more definitions for the terms leader and leadership than anyone could imagine and they seem to be expanding exponentially. Where do they all come from? Which ones can help us the most? While it’s good to see a lot of people devoted to understanding leadership, a growing lack of clarity muddies our efforts to help our people develop into effective leaders who can boost our results.
It seems that leadership has become everything anyone wants it to be and some are even trying to turn it into a synonym for management. As we continue to use the term leadership to mean more and more things, it becomes more ambiguous and loses its power to transform both those who aspire to be leaders and those who join with leaders to make great things happen.
During the last ten years, there has been some new and dramatic insights we’ve learned about what types of leaders produce the best results and what leadership really is. We’ve moved past the more traditional and academic ways of viewing leadership because we’ve been looking more at how leadership actually connects to end results. That’s a big change from identifying someone as a leader and describing what they do without looking at whether their people actually made anything good happen.
New thinking and research on leadership and leaders
I’ve spent a few decades now with this old friend leadership always seeking to understand more and remain open to new and better ways to view what makes one an effective leader. My first introduction to leadership happened in high school and my first job out of college. Over the decades, my views have changed especially during the last ten years.
A part of that is because I’ve had the good fortune to observe hundreds of managers and executives which helped me pinpoint better why some outperformed others. Then I dove into all the research being done out there on leadership, employee engagement, strategic alignment, employee retention and more to learn what others discovered. That inspired me to conduct my own research study.
The link between effective leaders and results is much stronger than it used to be. At the same time, our understanding about what type of leader produces those results has changed in many ways. We are digging much deeper as we seek to better understand what it means to be an effective leader.
My own definitions may not be quite the same as others because each leadership specialist contributes their own analysis and perspective. We are learning from each other as we continue to build a better understanding of what makes one an effective leader. With that caveat in mind, here is my latest views on what is leadership and what type of leader produces the best results.
Leadership voluntarily influences people to take action
Leadership is about voluntary influence. That separates it from all other kinds of influence. If people are not acting voluntarily, no leadership is occurring. In our roles as a manager, executive and parent, we sometimes have to give orders and put our foot down. That is a part of carrying out our responsibility in those roles but doing so is not leadership. So everything we have to do would not be considered leadership even though we may be an effective leader. You have to look at the amount of voluntary influence versus more authoritative actions to evaluate if someone is a leader.
Leadership must result in action. If there’s no action, there’s also no leadership going on. Only when someone influences others to voluntarily act has leadership taken place. No action, no leadership. It’s not about spouting off great sounding ideas that no one else is willing to participate in.
Leaders influence people to join with them
This is where we really get into the guts of what type of leaders produce the best results. That means what type of people consistently are able to voluntarily influence other people to take action. This definition is so important that I believe we need to explore each phrase to understand why it is that way and what it means.
Build enough trust – Leadership is about building trust. People will only voluntarily move in the direction we want if they trust us. If you have to order people to do something, that may be required as a manager or parent but it isn’t leadership. Trust is the currency of leadership. You have to build trust to voluntarily influence people.
Influence people – Leadership is about influence, not ordering, directing, manipulating or anything else that forces someone to act. Leadership and voluntary are married to each other.
Enthusiastically – Only when people do something because they want to are they being influenced by a leader. If they only do it because they have to, no leadership is happening. This difference between want to and have to is huge in our understanding of what type of leaders produce the best results.
The most effective managers and executives are able to use voluntary influence most of the time. The more their people are doing things because they want to, the more engaged and enthusiastic they are which translates into better results. Great leaders use their authority to direct people sparingly and infrequently.
Join with – Leaders walk with us and behind us. We don’t follow them, we join with them. The concept of leaders and followers reinforces antiquated ideas about what a leader is and does. This is why I no longer use the terms follow and follower when talking about leaders and leadership. Those terms take us backward in time and effectiveness. The best leaders serve the people they lead with humility. As leaders, we join with our people to make good and great things happen.
Make great things happen – Anyone who influences people to do bad things is not a leader. They may be a manipulator, con artist, persuasive or charismatic but they are not a leader. I added this to the definition because I believe leadership should be something positive we aspire to. I have never liked the idea put forth by too many “leadership experts” that a leader can be good or bad which means Hitler, Stalin and the head of ISIS have to be considered leaders. Not anymore! This definition excludes them along with the head of the KKK, gangs and anyone else that influences people to do bad things.
Trusted leaders only influence people to make good and great things happen. They lead with integrity and character. Leadership is about building trust. People trust your character…not your title, skills, personality or ideas.
Leadership is about who you are….your character. Your beliefs, values and attitudes drive how you behave which determines if people trust you. When you are a trusted leader, you are a leader twenty four hours a day no matter what you are doing because it’s who you are. Leadership is not something you turn on when you need it and turn off when you don’t. It’s a way of being that is with you all the time. It is this quality that people trust in you.
Schedule a phone conversation with Don Shapiro, President of First Concepts Consultants, to answer your questions and explore how this discussion could help your organization.