Busting leadership myth #1: Leadership = being a boss
I have seldom run into a concept as widely misunderstood and colourfully misused as leadership. We all seem to have our own definitions for what being a leader means. That in itself would be okay, if we were aware of those definitions. Typically, we’re not – and that’s how we end up debating about apples, oranges, elephants...and a screwdriver.
Due to this void of semantic logic, talking about leadership has opened a can of worms I had no idea existed. I have sat through some of the most painful discussions, made so agonising primarily by the fact that people were talking about completely different things. I have slowly started to realize I made the naive mistake of trying to skip over a couple of steps by just starting to talk about "leadership".
Someone who starts a project on leadership should know better.
I soon got to see that the lack of common definition is only one problem. The poor quality of the most prevailing ones - used at many leadership seminars, articles and books - is another. I don't think they capture much of what real leadership is - what the world really needs. The most common misleading definitions I have run into include:
“Leadership = being a boss"
- This definition implies you need to have a team “under you” to be a leader, and that having one makes you a leader – both of which are untrue.
“Leadership = that soft stuff that bad managers don’t do”
- This definition implies that leadership is the act of leading people, as opposed to leading things. And somehow it is implied that the former is better than the latter. There is nothing inherently noble in leading people, and nothing wrong with leading things. Both are equally needed, usually simultaneously, but for different purposes leading towards a single primary goal. Real leadership is seldom about just one of them.
I don’t think either of these definitions work. At least, they hardly describe what this project is trying to talk about. (Don't get me wrong - being a boss is an important art of its own, but for me it represents only a subset of all the things that can constitute leadership.) For me, they don't describe what real leadership is about and what the world needs more of. And as always, I should only grant myself a permission to bellyache about other people’s definitions if I can offer a better one. So let me try.
I would like to see more discussion of "leadership" as meaning the following:
Leadership = The everyday practice of responsibility and knowledge beyond the scope of your explicit responsibilities
What do I mean with it? Let me try to explain the concept by breaking it down to pieces:
- "Everyday practice…” – Leadership is not a position, nor a job, but a subtle attitude behind your behavior. This attitude is so persistent that it is also realized through your actions.
- “…of responsibility and knowledge…” – I think leadership essentially requires two attributes from its practitioner: 1) You feel like you can and should change things for the better (responsibility), and 2) You have knowledge (skills and information) to make it happen. And you actually put them into use instead of just wise-assing at other people’s attempts.
- “…beyond the scope of your explicit responsibilities.” – Now this is where I think the beef is. Leadership starts where what you’re supposed to do ends. I think we don’t talk about this clearly enough today: we need people who go through the effort of really pondering what should be done and taking action towards it – even if there is no reward for the ego (this is the really tricky part).
What does this imply? Quite simply: Just doing your job is not leadership. Real leadership is something that can never be assigned to you – it is up to you to take that role. Unless you adopt a leader mindset, you can never become a leader – no matter how many titles you gather, how many positions you go through, or how many years you live.
Fictional examples of real leadership include:
- Retiree Mary, 72, takes action to do something about the loneliness and depression epidemic among old people in her local town and sets up a day-time café at her home – instead of waiting for the municipality to do something about the problem
- CEO John, 47, demotes Head of Sales Martin, who’s been delivering amazing sales results, out of the executive team due to his ethically dubious sales techniques and abusive behavior – even though the move puts next quarter’s sales numbers and thus John’s own reputation and position in the eyes of the board at risk
- R&D engineer Steve, 34, thinks his company’s supply chain is functioning in environmentally unethical ways in Indonesia and takes action to gather a team to design a process that is more sustainable – and presents his proposal to the management team volunteering to lead a concrete change process
- Congresswoman Lisa, 58, finds a bill popular among voters in fact not beneficial to the topic at hand (due to a magnitude of complex reasons that most people don’t have the patience to study), and thus vetoes it – causing significant negative attention among the public two months before election
As we can see from these examples, there is nothing stopping us from practicing real leadership today.