What is leadership?

What is leadership?

Google lists millions of definitions, varying from slightly to very different. There are hundreds of leadership models. Yet we can usually recognise good or bad leadership when we see it. Part of the problem is that leadership has so many different aspects – it is multi dimensional and trying to explain leadership in only one to three dimensions (which is about as much as most of us can handle easily) is like trying to define a multi-coloured pompom (one of those woollen balls you often find on a wool hat) by only one or two strands of wool.

In essence, if you influence or inspire others, develop others, give others a direction or purpose, you are a leader. The way leadership looks and feels is context dependent – no one style suits all. I think of leadership as a relationship between a leader or leaders and followers, who are inspired around a common purpose. The nature of that relationship and leadership style is shaped by the context in which it happens, which can include among other things the culture, environment, politics, technology, and values, beliefs, trust, ethics and sense of purpose.

An leader is effective when their style suits the context, although their style can also influence the context within the local group. For example, Churchill was an excellent leader to keep morale high and a strong sense of purpose during the second world war, but his style didn’t suit a post-war Britain with different needs, a different purpose and different direction. We are also familiar with organisations where the culture and way of working reflect the leadership style of the CEO and perhaps other senior influencers or leaders.

I think of leadership involving two parts: “being”, which includes Emotional Intelligence, personality, interpersonal skills, responsibility and your personal beliefs, values, attitudes, ethics, motivation, vision, purpose etc; and “doing”, which partly depends on the context in which you are leading, including things like creating vision and strategy, organisational functions, building team relationships, putting your activities in wider context, delivering goals etc. The “being” and “doing” also applies to followers, although their “doing” activities are complementary to those of the leaders. Followership is as equally important as leadership.

There is a tight interplay between leader and follower. A title or job role does not make someone a leader. The followers who are inspired by the purpose and / or believe in the person make that person the leader. In a work context, this is why good leadership makes such a difference to performance (said to be about 30% to the bottom line) because leaders inspire their team and workers to be engaged and give their discretionary effort. Leadership is not just for a few people in high level positions, we need leadership all around us at all levels in our communities – whether social, faith, work, sport, or other groups. Even if you are running a micro business with no staff, you still need to lead yourself to motivate and inspire yourself to make things happen, and to influence your clients and customers. You need to be both leader and follower – leading when you work “on” the business, setting the direction and strategy, and being follower when you step into the daily working “in” the business.

The ability to step in and out of leader and follower roles, and knowing when each role is more appropriate, can be pivotal to the success of both the group and yourself as an individual. An example could be in a dynamic team or company board, where the leader is prepared to let another member take the lead and constructively support them in doing so, perhaps recognising specific expertise, skills or knowledge, or perhaps to raise others to take on leadership. Another example could be the typist at work who leads a community group in her spare time.

An important leadership role is parenthood and the way we lead ourselves and our family, and influence their development, core values, attitudes and beliefs. Children give unconditional followership to parents during early childhood and go through several critical development periods, particularly up to the age of 7. I personally believe this contributes to the controversy over whether leaders are born or made. There is so much evidence that leadership can be learnt and “born leaders” are most likely leaders who learned leadership from age 0.

Consider these scenarios where both parents have the positive intention to protect their child. Four-year olds Bob and Joe, want to go out and play. Parent A says “Remember to put on your coat, don’t get cold.” Bob follows orders; and grows up with others making decisions and choices for him. Parent B says “ok ” and when Joe runs back in saying “Its cold” asks what he will do. Joe puts on a coat and goes out again. Joe learns throughout childhood about making choices and the consequences of his actions and mistakes in situations that are not life-threatening. When these two children become teenagers, who is more likely to make good decisions? Which approach do you think is more effective in managers and leaders?

Unless we learn otherwise at some stage in our life, our default leadership style typically reflects the way our parents behaved with us. Yet, as good leadership is so context dependent and no one style suits all situations, the best leaders match their style to the situation. Learning good leadership starts with raising self awareness to recognise your own style, the way you behave and interact with others, and your own attitudes, beliefs and values that shape the way you behave and think. When these are raised from the unconscious level, where they strongly influence all the decisions you make without your being aware of it, you can consciously choose how to be and behave in different situations. The next stage is to learn how different styles can influence situations in different ways… and I think that is a lifetime’s journey.


Sue Mitchell offers executive coaching and leadership development. Take a look at www.aeona.co.uk for more information.

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