How Do You Define Leadership?

May 30, 2012

Some people feel that because they have a title, this makes them a leader. However, the big test of leadership is in how you answer this question: Would you have any followers if you didn’t have a title?

Leaders have followers, and if you don’t have true followers, then what you really have with your title is positional authority. Following is a voluntary act. This means that leaders can exist within organizations even though they aren’t in formal positions of authority; informal lines of leadership exists where leadership is conferred on certain individuals by others, such as in recognition of knowledge and expertise in a given area.

When it comes to formal lines of leadership, people are placed in positions of authority – management roles – in order to get things done. Not just as individual contributors, but to orchestrate and leverage the collective talents of the people who make up an organization.

The immediate objective is to reach today’s goals. Getting something done in the short-term is actually the easy part. The other half of the equation is to develop the people and the organization, to increase an organization’s capacity and ability to reach new heights tomorrow. The rub is that while positional authority literally puts you in a position to get things done, it is how you go about getting those things done that will define you as a leader.

Let’s hope that you don’t end up defined – as Bob Sutton has points out in his book, The No Asshole Rule – on the "certified" list of truly unpleasant people to work for. Unfortunately, as Bob Sutton points out in his book: “…some people do deserve to be certified as assholes because they are consistently nasty across places and times.” If you’ve spent enough time in the workforce, you probably have bumped into at least one of these in your day. I have, and they are truly toxic.

But let’s be fair, to earn this title you must be consistent in your behavior over a period of time. You need to make one person after another feel “…belittled, put down, humiliated, disrespected, oppressed, de-energized, and generally worse about themselves.

Someone like this can single-handedly decrease engagement and productivity (because people are more focused on protecting themselves than anything else) while increasing job dissatisfaction and turnover with extraordinary speed. It amazes me how people like this not only move into management positions in the first place, but manage to job-hop their way into executive positions and remain as toxic as ever. But I digress…

What about the classic distinction between being a manager and a leader? In today’s turbulent business climate that demands greater innovation and engagement in order for businesses to survive, let alone thrive, I don’t believe in Warren Bennis’ differentiation between a manager and a leader where, “The manager does things right; the leader does the right thing.” Not anymore.

At one point in time that was true. But we can’t let it be true any longer. The pace of business today demands more. Organizations need greater capacity in determining what the right thing to do is along with possessing the ability to swiftly transition to executing well (doing things right). We can’t afford the overhead and latency involved by keeping the two separate.

Today’s organizations cannot solely be paragons of efficiency, not when efficiency is defined by yesterday’s way of doing business. Today, we need our organizations to be effective and efficient, with the ability to quickly and reliably adapt to the rapidly changing circumstances of the business. To achieve this, organizations must have those in leadership positions that posses the qualities that allow them to guide organizations into being nimble, responsive and adaptive, to reliably execute while contending with challenging and changing conditions.

These days, leaders must be able to improve both the system and the people, to manage and lead. To coach and guide others who are new to evaluating systems problems and making improvements for themselves. The result will be a more adaptive, resilient organization capable of handling whatever challenges comes its way.