Leadership seems to be on everyone’s minds these days. Educators talk about “teaching leadership”, charitable organizations host “leadership development” programs, businesses invest heavily in “leadership training”. But what is leadership, exactly & how do we implement it into our lives?
Leadership is about bringing out and mobilizing the best in the people around you. It’s about helping a group of people work together towards a shared goal or set of goals. When leadership works, it creates leaders, not followers. (*which is a key point).
Leadership is often confused with power or control. The common idea is that leaders speak, and followers do. But while leaders may also hold a certain kind of power or control, in some senses power or control is the opposite of leadership: power is what we resort to when leadership fails. Another misconception about leadership is that it flows from charisma. While history does offer us the example of charismatic leaders like Martin Luther King, there is no necessary link between charisma and leadership.
So what is it? And what do we have to learn to practice leadership ourselves? Here’s a short list of ways that leaders exercise leadership.
What Do Leaders Do?
- Leaders listen. Listening is not waiting for your turn to speak. Listening is an active engagement with the person you are talking with. Leadership grows out of knowing the strengths and weaknesses of your colleagues, their fears and victories, what motivates them and what turns them off.
- Leaders empower those around them. Leadership is not about controlling everything. What separates leaders from the merely powerful is that leaders involve everyone around them and welcome their contributions, however small. Leaders help the people around them feel comfortable putting their ideas forward and acting on them. This is why actively listening is so important — it lets people know that what they say is valuable and important. If leadership is about making those around you into leaders, you have to let go and trust others to move your shared projects forward.
- Leaders recognize others’ strengths. Empowering others is bound up with recognizing what they are good at and encouraging them to develop those strengths. Then taking those strengths and directing your teammates into positions and areas that will not only maximize those strengths but they will enjoy doing things that they are naturally good at. It’s called ‘strength-based leadership’ and it’s very effective, productive, and rewarding.
- Leaders remove barriers. It really doesn’t matter if you are leading an army or leading an ice cream shop, leaders need to spend their time removing obstacles for their team. They are the leaders. If they don’t remove obstacles that prevent their team from doing their best work, who will?
- Leaders are trustworthy. There’s a reason people get so upset when prominent figures are exposed as hypocrites: it calls into question everything they came to believe about themselves and their goals. People may not believe you when you compliment them the first time, but as you build a consistent track record of honest and fair dealing, they will come to believe. Likewise, when you always do what you say you will do, when you act in accordance with the values you espouse, you become an inspiration to those around you.
- Leaders are confident. Good leaders are sure of themselves and their goals. Certainty is infectious — it conveys not just our wishes but our passions and makes them appear real and inevitable. It keeps us focused on our goals and not on the difficulty of attaining them.
- Leaders make decisions. People generally do not like to make decisions. They much prefer routines, known processes with known outcomes, and there’s a great deal of value in reducing complicated situations to a set of routines. But leadership is, by definition, about change, often disruptive change, and change demands decision-making, often between bad options. Leadership lies, therefore, in the wiliness to step forward and make a decision, and in taking responsibility for the consequences of our decisions.
- Leaders recognize the value in other perspectives. Leaders recognize their own limitations and the power that other people’s knowledge and life experience have to expand and push us past our limits. Leadership means trying to see the world from the perspective of those around you, even those who are working against you or working underneath you.
- Leaders commit to action. There are a lot of smart, thoughtful people in the world who know exactly what needs to be done to change the world we live in, yet their worlds never change. Leadership means taking the next step and actually doing it. Leaders convert future goals into immediate actions and either do them or inspire others to do them.
- Leaders demand commitment from others. In any project, there are lots of “hanger-oners”, people who are interested in the goals being worked toward but not really invested in the process of attaining them. Leadership lies in helping those people to become invested, generally by asking them to take responsibility for some action or set of actions. People who have made a commitment to doing something concrete are not only much more likely to do it but they come to view the overall project as their own — and to feel responsible for.
- Leaders share ownership. Leadership is about making those around us into leaders; ultimately leaders get out of the way. Good leadership lies in creating in others the sense that the goals they are working towards are their own — as are the rewards. By giving up control and sharing ownership of their goals and passions, good leaders help to insure that the changes they envision will endure beyond their own active participation.
True leadership is not about amassing followers, it is about building teams, it is about creating social structures that effect change, however small or great, in the world. Followers are for people who want the thrill of being adored and of exercising power over others, people too selfish and too weak to share. Real leadership is about real change, not personnel shifting.