Let’s Start at the Beginning–What is Leadership?

What is Leadership?

This is the most important question in any discussion on  how to build your personal leadership skills.  It is also the most difficult to answer.  Leadership is a behavior.  Leadership is a perception.  Leadership is a process.  Leadership is a set of skills.  Leadership is a position.  All of these are true.  And all of these are inadequate to define leadership.  Most importantly, leadership is in the eye of the beholder.  What you believe about leadership shapes your belief about how leaders should behave.  What the people who behold you as a leader believe about leadership shapes what they require of you as a leader.  What is happening at the time–the circumstances–shape what is required of you as a leader.  So . . . what you believe about leadership is only one small element of what should be shaping you as a leader if you want to be an effective leader.

So How Do You Figure This Out?

You start any investigation of leadership by examining your own experience.  When you think of the best leaders you have ever known, what characteristics did they have?  What behaviors?  What knowledge? How did they make you feel?  How did they communicate with you and others.  Was there a difference?  How did they delegate?  How did they handle the big picture?  How did they handle the detail?  Were they outgoing or were they introverted?  Were they smart?  Did the people who worked for them like them?  Did they get along with their peers? Whatever your answers to these questions, chances are that is what creates your concept of a “good” leader.

Your “good” leader had some negative characteristics too, though.  What did s/he do wrong?  Or, just not right?  What were the flaws, character, career or leadership, that your ‘best’ leader had.

Now, make a similar list of characteristics, behaviors, skills, knowledge of your “worst” leaders.  Why were they such bad leaders?  What did they do wrong?  What was it that set you on edge about them?

Now—put your “honest” hat on.  For the “bad” leader to actually have a leader role, s/he must have done something right.  What were the good qualities of your “worst” leader?  If you still have your “honest” hat on, the good and bad characteristics/skills/behaviors of both the “best” leader and the “worst” leader are likely to have some overlap.  If not, go back and adjust your “honest” hat and look again.

How People Become Leaders

Combinations of skills, traits, experiences, behaviors, and circumstances come together to put people in leadership roles.  One of my favorite stories–possibly apocryphal, but it makes the point nonetheless–is that Winston Churchill was a failure as a leader until World War II came along and the English people needed Churchill’s specific combination of skills.  True?  I’m sure there is another version or two of this story.  However, there are specific circumstances that call out for specific skill sets from leaders.  A leader who is great in a steady state, leading a large stable organization is not necessarily the right leader for a small entrepreneurial organization, or vice versa.

Baking a Cake

Becoming a leader is like baking a cake from scratch–a little of this, some of that, stir it up and bake it at the right temperature for the right length of time.  Becoming a leader is a lot more complicated than that too.  Becoming a leader requires you to be a learning machine.  It requires you to evaluate yourself in a richly open and objective way.  It requires you to push yourself to have experiences and to reflect about those experiences.  It requires you to try things that don’t work and learn from them.  It requires you to learn to listen and trust and experiment.  It requires you to remain flexible throughout.  There is not a leader anointing body that picks you and says “thou art a leader.”

If you want to be a leader, then I invite you to stay tuned through this series of posts on leadership.  I invite you to challenge yourself to answer the questions and reflect on your own knowledge of leadership.  I challenge you to talk to others about leadership.  It’s up to you.

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