What is Leadership?

Ryan Gottfredson

by Ryan Gottfredson

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How you define “leadership” matters!

When most people think of and write about leadership, they define leadership in terms of the organizational position one holds. This makes leadership an either-or proposition. You are either a leader or you are not. Also, it implies that all it takes to be a leader is to be put into a leadership position. Yet, both you and I know that there are many people in leadership positions that are not leaders.

A better way to define leadership is: the use of power and influence to direct others to goal achievement.

There are two huge benefits of defining leadership in this way.

First, this definition suggests that anyone can be a leader. Leadership is not about position, but rather about the power and influence one holds. One of my most favorite movies is Gladiator. In the movie, Russell Crowe plays a gladiator that defied the Emperor of Rome. One of the reasons why I love the movie so much comes from this line in the movie (spoken by the Emperor’s sister): “Today I saw a slave become more powerful than the Emperor of Rome.” This movie demonstrates that power and influence is not contingent upon the position one holds, but the person one becomes. (If you want to be inspired, watch the trailer of Gladiator here).

Second, this definition suggests that the quality of one’s leadership is based upon the type and amount of power and influence one holds. And who doesn’t want to be more influential in driving change and improvement, moving a project along in a quicker or higher-quality way, providing greater service to your key stakeholders and customers, or even getting our children to politely respond to one of our requests? This should inspire all of us, no matter our position within an organization, to gain greater power* and influence.

I put an asterisk by “power” because there are two general types of power, one being more healthy and the other being less healthy.

The less healthy form of power is organizational power. This form of power is rooted in the position we hold, along with our authority to wield rewards and punishments. When someone leads with organizational power, they rely upon their position (e.g., did you ever hear your mother say, “Because I am your mother, that’s why?”) or they rely upon incentives or punishments to get others to do what they want. When someone leads with organizational power, people “follow” them because they HAVE TO.

The more healthy form of power is personal power. This form of power is rooted in the person that we are and the degree to which we are respected by others. This can involve our personal qualities (e.g., kindness, enthusiasm), our expertise, and/or our network. When someone leads with personal power, people “follow” them because they WANT TO.

So what does this mean for you?

If you are in a formal leadership position, defining leadership as your ability to influence others to goal achievement should cause you to reflect upon the quality of your leadership. Are you primarily leading through personal power or organizational power? And, to what degree do those you lead WANT TO follow you?

If you are not in a formal leadership position, this definition means that you have the ability to be a leader where you stand. You can direct and influence others to goal achievement by becoming someone your peers WANT TO be influenced by.

Regardless of your position, to become a higher-quality leader, become someone that others WANT TO follow. This means improving who you are, what you know, and who you know.

This general idea of becoming somebody that others WANT TO follow will be the heart of this blog. I hope you are excited to learn more about how to become such a person.  

What have you done, or what do you do, to become someone that others WANT TO follow? Comment below to inspire and help other leaders and readers.

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