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What is leadership?


What exactly is it?

Is it an action? A position? A thought process? I guarantee that if you ask five people to define it, you’ll probably get five different answers.

Some believe leaders are born, others believe they are made. When asked to describe a leader, some picture a leader as a CEO, guiding from a distance; others picture someone who works in the trenches with others, helping them reach goals.

First, let’s differentiate between management and leadership. My favorite clarification is found in a 2013 article from Harvard Business Review:

Management consists of controlling a group or a set of entities to accomplish a goal. Leadership refers to an individual's ability to influence, motivate, and enable others to contribute toward organizational success. Influence and inspiration separate leaders from managers, not power and control.

The main difference I see is management being task-based, leadership being influence.

But how do you go about gaining influence? And can you get it without power and control, as noted in the definition? You gain influence by connecting with people, and that requires a command of soft skills that are associated with leadership (here are some of the more popular frequently discussed, in alphabetical order):

  • Active listening

  • Communication

  • Courage

  • Creativity

  • Delegation and trust in others

  • Empathy

  • Gratitude

  • Integrity

  • Life-long learner

  • Motivation

  • Respect

  • Responsibility and accountability

  • Trustworthiness

And how do you develop soft skills? Thankfully, they can be learned. You need education, training, research, self-reflection, self-awareness, and practice.

Lots of practice.

Leadership expected

There are two things about leadership that perplex me the most: (1) that a title bestowed upon you, well-earned or not, automatically makes you a leader, and (2) that you need a certain title to be considered a leader.

A major mistake made by many organizations is to promote their best employee (whatever “best” means in their books) into a leadership or management position and just expect them to know what to do. To make matters worse, it is common that the person promoted thinks that just having a title makes them a leader.

Do you see the problem?

Would you enter a dance contest without ever having stepped on dance floor? Would you fly a plane without ever having taken a lesson? Of course not! Because these are learned skills. There are professional schools and instructors where you go to take lessons.

Newsflash to HR departments, CEOs, and executives everywhere: leadership must be taught, and programs should be designed and in place to support the business.

No one should be put into a leadership position – or kept in one – without training.

No title required

But another often-overlooked truth is that you don’t need a title or position of power to be a leader. Some of the best leaders I’ve known had great influence, compassion, knowledge, and respect from others without the actual official bestowed authority.

Translation: anyone has the potential to be a leader (not a guarantee, but the potential).

Let’s get back to practice.

I approach leadership training with the expectation that the student is committed to learning those skills and everything that goes along with them. When you are learning any new skill – let alone multiple skills – and practicing to experience improvement and gain mastery, you will naturally also experience failure. Unfortunately, when someone is promoted, starts a business, or assumes any position of leadership, immediate perfection is expected. Many new leaders aren’t allowed the time or grace to figure out what works for them, how to develop the suite of skills needed to become a leader.

And to watch that process is, for me, beautiful. Not everyone who is a leader has the same strengths or develops them at the same speed. But what else do I consider a strength of being and becoming a leader? And quite possibly one of the most powerful?

Enough self-awareness and humility to seek out and surround yourself with those whose skills complement their own.

But...bottom line...leadership is a collection of soft skills to be learned and developed, and it's a never-ending process. Don't you find that thrilling, knowing your skills are never maxed out? What an adventure.

Are you ready?


Interested in strengthening and expanding your skills? I provide 1:1 holistic leadership training and I invite you to schedule a call to discuss the program.

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