Three beliefs about the meaning of leadership
Recently I have noticed how much the words Leader and Leadership are thrown around. You can see them shown in ads for jobs, in CVs, in job titles, in marketing campaigns, and in the material we read for motivation and inspiration. I wonder if somewhere along the way the true meaning of leadership has been lost. Whenever we think about the word Leader, we picture an iconic figure; a politician, a character from a book, film or TV show, someone who we look up to, a celebrity, someone with money or power, someone who has done something meaningful for mankind. We admire these leaders, and we put them up on a pedestal knowing that what they have done is, for lack of a better word, greatness.
I remember one of the many team restructures that occurred at one of my previous employers, where job titles changed, as well as some of the reporting lines. My colleague turned to me after the roll out and said, “apparently I’m the new Process Improvement Leader, but I have no one reporting to me, so whom am I exactly leading?” We laughed, as you often do when change is imminent and we try to pretend it doesn’t affect us. I do remember thinking, “in order for us to be leaders, do we have to be managing a team? Does it have to be made explicit in an organisational chart in order to get buy-in, credibility?” I can get into the discussion of how being a leader is not the same as being a manager, but I won’t, this has been done many times and it’s like the whole chicken and egg conundrum.
The fact of the matter is that there seems to be this perception that leadership carries a certain weight, of status perhaps; and if individuals don’t believe themselves to be leaders, how can they embrace leadership as a way of living. There is a TED talk by Drew Dudley called “Everyday Leadership”, I invite you to watch it…I like Drew’s approach in trying to demystify somewhat this perception of leadership we’ve come to have.
My colleague was more than capable of carrying out her new role, I always admired how systematic she was, how incredibly acute and patient in understanding how business units interacted, she had the capacity to sit with everyone and listen to their jobs, their challenges, how they thought things could be improved, and she did a great job in holding everyone in a room and getting them to work focused on improvement measures. And yet, she didn’t realise that in doing her job she was leading a whole team of people making things better and more efficient. She was a leader, yet that word in her job title presented a dilemma for her, due to her perception of what it meant to be a leader – someone that has people reporting to them.
Here are three things I believe about leadership…
It’s about influence
Whether we like to admit it or not, we influence people. I don’t mean this in a Machiavellian way, and hopefully you won’t either, but rather in the sense that by interacting with the people in our everyday lives, and through the experiences we share we begin to learn from each other, pick up on little things such as the way we dress, the music we listen to, the books we read, the shows we watch, the lingo we use, the food we eat, etc. In an organisational context, we tend to mimic (mostly on a subconscious level) the people we look up to, the bosses we one day wish to become, especially at the very early stages of our careers. We tend to mirror the things we admire, the better versions of ourselves we want to one day be. So with this in mind, knowing that there are people around you that look up to you (or at least look up to the better part of your character), and inevitably there are; siblings, family, friends, colleagues, co-workers, etc. Why not capitalise on this? Use this influence to drive change, to raise awareness about things that matter to you and to many. Use this influence to challenge the status quo, to make a difference and to support you in tough times, to make difficult decisions. Your circle of influence might be small, in comparison to celebrities’ or politicians’, but it exists nonetheless, and it is valuable.
When I left my job to set up my own business, one of the things that worried me a lot was what people would think of me. I was so grateful to find how supportive my circle of influence reacted to the news; people I had lost contact with over the years got in touch to wish me well, friends and colleagues listened to me as I shared my doubts, fears and excitement. My family stood by me and celebrated with me the next chapter in my life. It is a moment that I shall always cherish, and that allowed me to realise just how much influence I can have on others’ lives, and their influence on mine – remember it is reciprocal.
It’s about serving
It might sound contradictory to the previous point, but leadership, in fact, is about something greater than the individual. “What is your main responsibility as a team leader?” I remember a consultant asking a room full of people holding team leadership positions. Answers were spouted out, “to get the most out of your people”, “to get the job done in the most efficient way”, “to avoid disruption to the work”, and so many other jewels. After several minutes, the presenter looked around the room and said, “Your responsibility as team leaders is to develop your people”. This went down like a lead balloon, people looked at each other wondering what this guy was talking about. This stayed with me for some time; I wondered if I had any responsibility for my team’s development, this concept was new to me. I mean they had a fixed step-training program lined out for them, beside checking with them if they were on track, and ensuring there was a budget to cover the training sessions throughout the year, what else was I accountable for?
Listening is the best way of being there for somebody. Remember what you read earlier on about mimicking our bosses? I had the pleasure at the time of reporting to a guy whose door was always open, literally. Whenever I had something pressing to discuss, whether it was professional or personal, my manager would press CTRL+ALT+DEL on his keyboard, tell me to close the door and invite me to sit, “What’s up?” that’s all he’d say, full attention on me. The way I felt after our conversations got me to think there was something right about that approach, and so I began using it with my team. When my team started to feel I was available to them because I truly listened, the quality of our conversations was so much better; we talked about their careers, about their aspirations and concerns. This certainly went beyond the fixed step-training programme and managing a training budget, and I realised that I was accountable for being there for my team, and that was an enabler to their development. When you’re in a leadership position you are serving your team with your attention, you offer them that time and space to be creative, to grow, you provide support and have their best interest in mind. An interesting concept is it not? To be a leader is to be a servant to your team.
It’s a way of being in the world
If there’s one thing I’d like you to take away from this is that to be a leader you don’t have to hold a position of leadership; there are many people in leadership positions who sadly are not leaders. I also want to move past the organisational context and propose to you that we are leaders (or have the potential to be) in our daily lives. We make decisions that affect the course of our lives; we take risks and strive to achieve the things we’re passionate about. We have the capacity to support someone in need of affection or attention. We have the role of preparing our children for the world, of giving them the right set of tools they need to be self-sufficient and become future leaders themselves.
The thing about that pedestal I spoke to you earlier on, we’re all on it! We’re just too busy looking at others to recognise the true worth of our contribution at work, in our personal life and to those around us.
So, bringing it all together, the three things that I associate with leadership are:
- Recognising our circle of influence, and learning how to capitalise on this, as well as how to contribute towards others in that circle.
- Beginning to think about how we can serve better those we lead before we continue to demand and expect results from them.
- Embracing our innate leadership, and understanding that we have a role and responsibility to ourselves to be the best leader we can be.