Leadership Defined

Written by: Alan Rodway

Leadership can be described as “a process in which one person can enlist the aid and support of others in the accomplishment of a common task ”. Leadership is one of the most important ingredients of success in anything. When leadership is lacking the outcomes will drop, for the group and the individuals involved.

This article looks at the critical components of leadership and it will be most powerful for you to ‘test’ yourself against the components below:

It’s critical to understand that leadership is about what a person does, not what they say. If someone engages in acts of leadership then what he / she says will be listened to as well. If someone only talks about successful behaviours then they can easily be dismissed. It’s the ‘Do’ that counts .

Leaders commit inspirational acts.  It’s impossible to motivate someone else, but it IS possible to inspire them; consider the difference in that notion. If all someone does is a good job, that constitutes a sound performance but it’s not leadership. Good performance punctuated with some inspirational acts is an important part of leadership. An inspirational act is “something that makes someone want to do something or gives someone an idea of what to do or create”. People can’t help but take notice and therefore some may be driven to emulate the act.

Demonstrated ability to get the best out of people … Is that coaching or leadership? It’s both. An ability to take someone from their current performance to something higher is a highly valuable (and rare?) skill. It requires understanding of the person, (time and emotional) commitment to them, persistence, knowing when to go ‘hard’ and when to back off, patience, challenging them to get more out of him / her self and recognition of the improvement steps along the way. Think of instances where someone’s performance has improved (significantly) due to the influence of another person … the latter is leading.

Frequently meeting new people and learning from them adds to one’s leadership skills and demonstrates to others the importance of being ‘out there’ and being open to learning. Too many people learn from too few sources and would benefit from being led into broader learning domains, including learning from others. I encourage all my clients to meet with at least one new person every month, from outside their own organisation and industry, to learn from them. And then to push what they’ve learnt out to others.

Courage is a critical component of leadership. Sure, it’s true, that some leaders have less fear than other people but that’s not always the case. Sometimes it’s a matter of “Feel the fear and do it anyway”. Wonderful saying that … it means, don’t try to overcome the fear, just engage the act. Don’t engage mind games to overcome having the fear … “just do it”. And fears can be of many things … failure (the big one), embarrassment (a significant one), “what will people think” or peer pressure, potential losses, etc.

Dealing with one’s comfort zones and even smashing out of some of them is also important. Sometimes, to lead others, it’s necessary to break through our own comfortable situations first. So, we should all identify our own and choose those to break through, for our own performance and then to lead others to do the same.

Demonstrated propensity to lead change … not just cope with it but to lead it. All change we live with has been caused by human beings (apart from natural disasters). Think about that … so anyone who doesn’t like (the speed of) change has to everyone else to blame who’s causing it. Followers resist or just cope with change; leaders write the script. And “If you don’t like change, you’re going to hate becoming irrelevant”. Leaders exhibit a change in their own behaviours … if you haven’t seen them for a year or two, you would notice the improvements in their behaviours and what they’ve learnt.

Handling of failure. Leaders define failure as not trying the next time or not reaching potential. There is little emotion in failure for leaders; they accept that it didn’t work that time and move on to the next attempt. “Failure is feedback” … what are the things we need to change to get a better outcome next time? And others around them learn from that approach.

Acknowledging and owning one’s mistakes is another important trait of leadership. The opposite is to blame others. It sets a very fine example to others when someone says ‘that’s my fault and I’ll fix it’. Looking at one’s self first, before looking at others, is fine leadership. “Look into the mirror before looking out the window”. This encourages others to examine their own behaviours for improvement rather than, at worst, blaming others.

Handling rejection well rather than being sensitive about it is a fine quality of leadership. Not personalizing rejection and being astute enough to ‘feel the bite’ but behave as required is important. We are all human but leaders recognize the emotion and engage the required behaviour.

Encouraging, respecting and recognizing others.  There are three components in there. Human beings thrive on encouragement, we react well to being treated with respect and we love recognition. Leaders should dish these three things out sincerely and frequently. Care is a little different and an addition to those three … there’s an old saying that ‘people don’t care what you know until they know that you care’. So, getting to know ‘the person’ is critical to fine leadership; it makes it much easier to connect to the person and help them engage in a high-level performance. And, leaders must have a commitment to their team and to the organisation, or the situation can fragment.

Leaders sometimes ask questions rather than ‘tell’ and listen rather than ‘talk’. No matter how knowledgeable someone is, the people around them are sometimes better led to behavioural improvement by an ear or a question, than a lecture.

High levels of self awareness … of comfort zones, skills (and gaps), knowledge (and deficiencies), fears, strengths, habits (good and bad), qualities, ability to perceive, intellectual capabilities (of various types), preferred communication style (audio, visual, kinesthetic), what threatens us, preference for control, etc. Being aware of these aspects of one’s self-helps to generate a higher level of performance from that person and provides the example to others to do the same.

Wrap the following into one critical component of leadership for an organisation:

  1. Clarity of the end game,
  2. Effective communication of the endgame to others,
  3. Skill in planning,
  4. Skill in developing strategies.

Whether all of that comes from one person in the organisation or from several people doesn’t matter, but it’s critical to the overall leadership. And, that leads to a different but related point … leadership doesn’t always have to come from one person; it can and should be coming from a group of people, irrespective of their roles and ‘seniority’. And several individuals have to take their turn at leadership when required.

Demonstrated accountability … an individual who does everything that has been agreed to and what can reasonably be expected, is accountable. Accountability is linked to integrity, and that’s a powerful and logical connection to strike. Leaders hold themselves to account and that enables them to do the same with others. And they are reliable … think of who you would go to if you really needed to rely on their behaviour or achieve an outcome. That person has one of the leadership qualities.

Surely it’s also important to come up with new Ideas and innovations. If leaders don’t do this, then who does? Leaders would be able to point to ideas they have put into practice in their teams or organisations over the last twelve months.

Leaders must have a strong commitment to the happiness and wellbeing of their team. Some ‘senior people’ in organisations don’t have or couldn’t demonstrate this; it can even be construed as them having a selfish agenda. That will never engender a high level of performance from the team. And beyond this commitment and the genuine care factor that has to go with it, is a respectful behaviour to others … that’s an important part of this as well.

Self-discipline is ‘doing what you don’t want to and not doing what you do want to do, towards the achievement of a goal’. Self-discipline is part and parcel of leadership and not an old phrase that seems to have lost favour with some. If we want the reward then we have to pay the price.

Leaders should have the adaptability to engage the views and differences between team members … that’s an important aspect of getting the best from individuals, as well as the team. Our own opinions and situations are most powerful when they are complemented by those of others, not put up ‘against’ them. One plus one equals three (i.e. synergies) only if teams can find ways to make the most of differences in people rather than allow them to cause disengagement.

Responding well in times of emergency or even crisis is another aspect of fine leadership. I love the saying “Greatness is defined in moments of crisis”. This requires effectiveness in both the spontaneous and calculated reactions.

Do leaders have to have an “X factor” … Something about them that’s significantly different, even unique? It could be physical, behavioural, emotional or mental. Would it be reasonable to suggest that without an X-factor, some of the other leadership traits would need to be present in large quantities?

Leaders set their own goals and communicate along the way with others as to how they’re tracking and how they’re going about it .. it sets a clear and powerful example for others to follow. The effect on others of witnessing someone who gets their weight down, heightens their fitness, develops themselves personally, achieves business objectives, overcomes past adversity, etc. can only be positive. Again, it’s not only the achievement of these goals; it’s the ‘letting in’ of other people on the process that provides the leadership for them to follow.

High levels of health and energy, whilst not necessary to be a leader, does set a fine example and the world would do well to encourage this as a leadership component.

A biggie… Passion. It’s far easier to be wonderful at doing what we love than something we don’t. So, people who make their careers out of their passion are most likely to succeed (and therefore lead) … they never go to work. Making your passion your career and rejecting the notion of ‘having a job’ is a fine example for others to follow, especially when someone extricates themselves from an unsatisfactory situation in so doing.

Two other important qualities of leaders: Being proactive ( not waiting for situations to come to them) and an ability to effectively resolve complex situations. The former is necessary and the latter can be an additional quality of a leader.

It must be said that leaders are authentic and known to be so. Authenticity is at the heart of trust and leaders have it in abundance.

Finally, a fundamental question that is often asked … Are leaders born or developed? Leadership can be trained and developed in all people … absolutely it can. That’s not contrary to some people being born leaders … it’s just easier for them. As long as someone wants to lead, is willing to demonstrate courage, discipline and persistence, then leadership is there for the taking.

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