Nearly 10 years ago, I was working as a junior producer in the video game industry. My job was intentionally left undefined by the company. At the time, I found this role ambiguity annoying, but it was at least made clear to me that part of my job was ‘leadership’. Of course, I had an intuitive sense of what ‘leadership’ was, and I’d actually received quite a bit of training around it. See, I’d grown up in the Boy Scouts as a kid, attended formal leadership training through the Army’s Reserve Officers’ Training Corp (ROTC) program in college, then became an active duty combat arms Lieutenant. That all involves a lot of leadership training! I followed that with three or so years in the military including a year long deployment, finally leaving the Army as a Captain. I knew I had led, or at least people around me seemed to think I had done the ‘leadership thing’.
A lot of people I talked to also seemed to have an intuitive sense of what leadership was. Often in groups we would talk about leadership, good leaders and bad leaders, what it meant to be a leader, and how you behave when you are a leader. There was this shared intuitive understanding of what ‘leadership’ was between me and the people around me. I had invested time into the topic: I’d been formally trained, I regularly read books about leadership, I loved having conversations with those around me. I got a lot out of the books and conversations, but I was surprised that in them there was rarely a definition of what leadership was. What the heck were we talking about? Was it just a shared intuition?
I’m the type of person who likes to understand something through articulation. I enjoy exploring things at multiple layers. A topic can often be expressed in diverse ways. Behavior, intellect, value, principle, theory, science, purpose, etc. can all apply to a single idea. Leadership seemed intuitively clear at the behavioral level. People seemed to have a lot of respect for leaders (at least good ones!). But as I went further up the layers, the intellectual, abstract, and theoretical identity of ‘leadership’ was missing. We all sort’ve knew it when we saw it, we aspired to be it, but what it actually was almost felt too obvious to be really discussed. We could only act it out, or point to it when others did.
Many of the books I read I would recommend to others, such as Extreme Ownership by Jocko Willink/Leif Babin, The Five Dysfunctions of a Team by Patrick Lencioni, and Turn the Ship Around by L. David Marquet. Most of them told stories or fables. As I think back, it seemed that leadership was something most commonly expressed through example and story. Many of the books take a behavioral lens towards leadership, showing what was done that worked and didn’t. Principles would be extracted from that, things like, “Value your people and their perspectives” and “You have to hold the vision of the future”. Common themes of care, resilience, humility, and the importance of goals emerged. Yet what leadership was often remained something to be acted out and experienced, rather than clearly articulated.
I went on a search for a good definition of leadership. There are many definitions out there. I’ll give some examples that I found, from dictionaries and books and people I talked to.
- “The action of leading a group of people or an organization.” (Thanks Dictionary 😐 )
- “The task of the leader is to get [their] people from where they are to where they have not been”
- “Leadership is the art of getting someone else to do something you want done because [they] want to do it.”
- “[Leadership is] a person with a non-anxious spirit.”
- “[Leadership] Creates an inspiring vision of the future, motivates and inspires people to engage with that vision, manages delivery of the vision, and coaches and builds a team so that it is more effective at achieving the vision.”
- “All of the great leaders have had one characteristic in common: it was the willingness to confront unequivocally the major anxiety of their people in their time. This, and not much else, is the essence of leadership.”
Some of these felt insufficient, many were far too complicated, and some didn’t seem to actually define “Leadership” at all. I pressed onward, intrigued now by the variance and apparent confusion. I began looking for common elements across what I’d read, and then to condense that down to as short a statement as I could manage that still made sense. I ended up seeing three key elements: influence/effect, other people, and a desired outcome/vision. So after messing around with grammar for a bit I came up with my definition of ‘leadership’.
Leadership is influencing others towards a goal.
At some point I want to go and talk about each of the three elements in more detail. Suffice to say that others have said similar things about leadership (a good sign), and though I could nitpick my own language a bit (“a” goal or “the” goal? etc.), this definition seemed to work, to be fairly short, and to not contain the word ‘leader’ or ‘lead’.
This definition was also useful to me as I thought about my own role as ‘leader’ of a team or larger group. I was able to ask questions like, “What are the ways I am influencing, and how else could I be influencing?”, “Are others involved and ‘following’ me?”, “What is the goal I am trying to move this group/product/company/etc. towards as I lead?”
These questions started to shift how I viewed the role I was in. No longer could I take a back seat when things weren’t moving toward the ‘goal’ even though I’d ‘tried to get us there’. The intentional vagueness of the word ‘influence’ meant I needed to find other ways to exert it. Could I convince, argue, sweet talk, prove, demonstrate, act, or even order others in order to get where we should go? How much of each of those and when?
Defining leadership for myself also began unlocking many other thoughts about being a leader. I want to spend some amount of time talking about those thoughts. Here’s some topics that are top of mind right now.
- Why is leadership necessary? What are leaders doing?
- Why do people follow other people?
- What forms of influencing others are not ok? Why not, are there exceptions?
- What distinguishes between management and leadership?
- What is the relationship between leadership and ethics?
Layers regarding leadership have been constantly unveiling themselves as question marks ever since putting the definition down. To this day I can’t go more than a few months without being forced to think through what leadership means, how I relate to it, and what I might do if I wanted to communicate or teach leadership to another person. If this is interesting to you, watch this space, because now that I’ve started I want to go deep into leadership, and I want to know where I’m wrong or incomplete.
For now, I’ll leave you with something to try: whenever I am mentoring a leader or aspiring leader, I often start by asking them to define what leadership is. Have you done that? Take it seriously if you haven’t. Set aside some time, come up with something, and don’t worry about whether it’s right or not. I don’t know if my answer is right or the best, I know it was useful and a lot of that was because I had to think through it and try to glue all the random floating ideas in my head together. Spend the time doing that. Write it down. Then you will have a better understanding of what you expect of YOURSELF as a leader. Next step: run your definition past others you work with or know, or even your boss. How do they define leadership, or what do they think of your definition? So much of our modern jobs are about managing expectations. If you can get even vague agreement about what leadership is, you will have a better understanding of what others are looking for you to do.
The other thing I would ask is your feedback about the ideas I put forth. I’ve put thought into this – and I do like thinking about things – but I’m not so prideful as to believe I’m the only one that has thought about it or that my ideas are better than everyone else’s. What are your thoughts? How do you define leadership? Do you think I’m off the deep end and should just focus on behaviors rather than trying to intellectualize everything? Let me know. I can’t promise anyone I’ll change my mind, but I’ll hear you out. People have changed my mind many times in the past, and hopefully many times in the future. I can say I’ll seek to come at whatever you write with humility and an open mind.
Thanks for reading! Looking forward to the conversation.