The topic of “leadership” is one of the most common subjects by authors and speakers across many disciplines. In business, sports and politics, just to name a few areas, you can find a never-ending stream of ideas and concepts to improve your leadership skills. My own leadership journey has taken me in many different directions, but the path started in earnest when I heard the speaker, Warren Rustand, ask a simple question:
“How do you define leadership?”
In hindsight, it seems so simple to start with defining the term, but at the time I was surprised how hard it was for a room full of entrepreneurs to quickly provide a clear definition of a subject that is so often discussed. Before continuing with the article, take a moment and write down your definition of leadership.
From that day forward I was determined to be clear about what leadership means to me. I knew I had to define “leadership” before I could actually be the “leader” I wanted to be. But what I thought would be an easy one-time decision turned out to be a constant evolution and study of what leadership means. I believe the definition of leadership is unique to each person, every situation, and will evolve over time as each person develops their leadership skills.
I believe you should find the definition that best suits your leadership style and your current situation. A leader of a non-profit board will have different objectives than the leader of a sports team, but they both need to clearly define what leadership means. As a starting point, the following are a few examples and definitions of leadership that I’ve collected during my journey.
The speaker that ignited my curiosity in defining leadership was Warren Rustand. During that presentation Warren shared with the group that his definition of leadership was, “The activity of moving a group of people to achieve a common goal.” I’ve always considered this definition the base “tactical” meaning of leadership. For many years I used this definition as the basis for my leadership style as I focused on leading groups of people. Early on in my career my leadership focus was very tactical.
Later I heard Joseph Grenny, the author of “Crucial Conversations” and “Influencer: Essential Leadership Skills To Create Lasting Change”, define leadership as, “Leadership is intentional influence. A systematic process of getting people to act differently to improve results.” It’s similar to Warren’s definition, but Joseph adds the concept of how leadership is accomplished by stating “intentional influence” and a “systematic process.” I also find it interesting that the objective of Joseph’s leadership definition is to “improve results” versus Warren’s “achieve a common goal.” The difference is probably indicative of their particular leadership situation – ongoing management versus project-based leadership.
A few years later I was inspired by Stephen M.R. Covey, the author of “The Speed of Trust.” The main concept in his book and speeches is that all relationships are based on a foundation of trust. Not surprisingly then he defines leadership as “Getting results in a way that inspires trust.” For me, this definition was an important evolution from Warren and Joseph’s concept because it made it clear that it’s never okay to get results by using manipulative or exploitative techniques. I started paying more attention to the leaders I knew to see if they were truly building trust with their teams, or just “getting stuff done at all costs.” I believe leaders must build trust with everyone they lead.
Recently I heard Frances Frei, author of “Uncommon Service”, speak about leadership and her definition is my preferred definition today, “Leadership is about making others better as a result of your presence. And making it last in your absence.” For me this definition reflects my current objective as a business coach at Petra Coach ‘to positively influence teams to work with purpose, alignment and accountability.’ As a coach I have limited time with each of my clients and Frances’ definition of leadership reminds me that my success is measured by how well the team operates in my absence.
I don’t believe there’s a single definition of leadership that is right for everyone in every situation. And I expect I will continue to evolve my definition of leadership as I mature. But I do know that it’s helped me to be a better leader by clearly defining what leadership mean to me. Now look back at the definition you of leadership that you wrote down earlier and ask yourself two questions: Is that the right definition of leadership for me today? And am I living up to being that type of leader?