Charlie asked the question last week: “Why aren’t you striving to be a leader in your field?” which has gotten me thinking about leadership, and what it means to be a leader. It also sparked an email exchange with a friend on the topic, which led to some interesting thoughts.

What does it mean to be a leader?

  • Is it being an “active participant in professional societies, write popular blogs about your industry, get asked to write articles for magazines and regularly speak on conference panels”, as Charlie suggests?
  • Is it being the person on top of the org chart giving orders?
  • Is it about knowing more than others?
  • Is it being the person who everybody gets along with and goes to with their questions and problems?
  • Is it being the person motivating others to achieve more?
  • Is it about being impressive?

We can probably think of people in all of these categories who we think of as leaders. So it’s clear that “leadership” is not an easily definable characteristic. Yet it’s like obscenity – we know it when we see it.

Perhaps leadership is about helping people achieve their goals. In other words, if I want to be a leader, I must gain followers, and therefore I must do something that would get people to follow me. I can do that in a number of different ways:

  • I can be an industry spokesperson, with the potential to widely publicize followers who add value, possibly turning them into leaders themselves.
  • I can be the organized one, who puts together plans, prioritizes goals, makes sure resources are available, etc. so that my followers efficiently use their time and effort.
  • I can be the domain expert, with the experience to understand how to turn ideas into reality and the ability to enhance others’ capabilities by providing them with the knowledge they need to succeed.
  • I can be the consensus builder, able to bridge different viewpoints and synthesize them into solutions that are better than any individual contribution.
  • I can be the inspirational one, able to convince people to reach deep inside themselves to work harder towards a common goal.

One way to measure leadership might be to see who everybody in the room looks to when a decision needs to be made. Just because somebody is the manager on the org chart doesn’t necessarily make them that sort of leader (as Rands’s great story about “The Culture Chart” illustrates). One can be “The Guy” to whom others look using any of the methods described above.

So what can one do to become a leader? Part of being a leader is understanding one’s own strengths and weaknesses and choosing a leadership style that matches one’s tendencies. Gerald Weinberg’s book Becoming a Technical Leader offers advice about finding one’s own path towards leadership. And, on the flip side, it’s hard to take somebody seriously as a leader when they are acting in a way that is contrary to their nature – the engineer trying to schmooze his way to the top, or the MBA spouting half-understood technical jargon.

Mostly I’m fascinated by this idea of leadership that initially seems so prosaically obvious – we all know what leadership is – and yet so difficult to define.

What do you think defines a leader?

P.S. There were a couple crazy months there, both at work and in life. Things have calmed down a bit, and I enjoyed a slothful few weeks to recover from the craziness, but it may be time to pick up the posting habit again.

3 thoughts on “Leadership

  1. It would seem that to be a “leader” you need followers that follow you. On account of you needing to lead something to be a leader. However you get those followers probably doesn’t actually matter – coercion, force, sly shenanigans and what not.

    All that matters is that you have followers. You can be a bad leader – a tyrant, a despot, or you can be a good leader, whose followers follow you because they want to.

    Seriously, though, if the question is what it takes to be a good leader, then perhaps the main criteria is that people follow you because they want to, not because you pay them to. In some sense, it’s when the authority you receive from below is greater then the authority you’ve received from above.

  2. The leader of any group is simply the person who currently has the best idea for someplace to go. Metaphorically, or physically.

    One thing I like to encourage people to realize is that leaders change constantly in groups. One minute I’m leading, and then the next someone else is, and the next minute a third person is leading, and so on, as we each have some small new idea for where to go. Watch a flock of geese or a school of fish sometime, and you’ll see what I mean. 🙂

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