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"Control is not leadership; management is not leadership. Leadership is leadership." Dee Hock, founder and CEO emeritus, Visa

But what is leadership? A voracious reader, I recently went on Amazon to take a look at titles on leadership. There were 181,321 results. With that many varying points of view, perspectives, and sets of experiences, how could anyone possibly define leadership? The reality is that leadership is as broad as the entire world and as narrow as the individual.

Nebulous Leadership

To paraphrase Dr. Balaji Krishnamurthy, a renowned leadership expert and Vistage speaker: Leadership is an individual experience. It cannot be taught, learned, or imitated. Leadership must be developed. Learning assumes it already exists; developing implies the creation of something not yet in existence.

You create your own style of leadership, and it is your responsibility to develop it. So, while the concept of leadership is broad - 181,321 books and counting - it is also defined by the individual. By you.

You read books and articles, listen to mentors, bosses, and colleagues, take in information, experience challenges, triumphs, and failures. And through this you create what Krishnamurthy calls your "Leadership Agenda," a statement of your leadership style.

Writing this agenda, he says, "makes you intentional; delivering your Leadership Agenda makes you authentic." Even if you don't write a statement, per se, your "leadership agenda" is what you create it to be - and it is constantly evolving as you learn.

You Know What Leadership Is - Do Your People?

The average employee often considers leaders and managers to be synonymous. They're not. A leader can be a manager, but a manager isn't always a leader. In his classic book, On Becoming a Leader, Warren Bennis lays out some differences between the two, including:

  • The manager maintains; the leader develops.
  • The manager focuses on systems and structure; the leader focuses on people.
  • The manager has a short-range view; the leader has a long-range perspective.
  • The manager does things right; the leader does the right thing.

This is not a judgement: managers have their place - and a critical one - in organizations. And it is not to say that the two roles cannot intertwine. It is to say that leaders need to define (for him or herself and his or her people) what management is and what leadership is.

Your Definition - Their Interpretation

You define leadership - but your people are the ones who have to buy it. Are they following you in the direction you're going? That makes you a leader in the technical sense of the word. Are they engaged in doing so? That makes you a leader in every sense of the word.

You might have people who plod along behind you just because you're the manager/boss/owner. They have to do it, so they will come in, punch the clock and trudge behind you, one foot in front of the other. But you need engagement. You need people who are excited, curious, and enthusiastic about where you are leading them - and about their part in it. People want to be part of something meaningful; that's the root of engagement. So you've got to ask yourself, are people excited about going in the direction you're leading them?

Ultimately, your people validate your definition of leadership. They say whether or not you are an effective leader. If you are, they are happy to follow. If not, they will simply follow someone else. As the old saying (which is backed by research) says, people don't leave companies. They leave leaders.

There are as many definitions of leadership as there are leaders. Ultimately, the one that matters is yours.


Larry Hart

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