I recently had the pleasure of speaking on the topic of leadership at a meeting of North Carolina attorneys. Much to my surprise, they invited me back to speak on the same topic to a larger gathering this summer.
Another surprise is how often I get asked to speak on leadership. That tells me there must be quite an appetite for understanding what leadership is all about, despite countless resources on the topic. So let me offer a different twist: What leadership is not.
First, leadership is not management. Being a leader has little to do with job titles or supervisory roles. In almost any organization, people can be leaders without being in a position to direct others.
Leadership is not power. We need look no further than Congress to see proof of this. It is a place full of powerful people, many of whom display no inclination toward leadership. Leaders seek to harness the collective power of others and channel that power in productive directions. Effective leaders give the credit for success to others, and take responsibility for the failures.
Leadership is not dependent on charisma. To be sure, there have been many leaders who have magnetic and engaging personalities, but there are far more who did not.
Leadership is not intimidation. The best leaders truly care about the people they are leading. Effective leaders even care about their adversaries. President Eisenhower once said: “You don’t lead by hitting people over the head. That’s assault, not leadership.” People are far more likely to follow an inspiring leader than a threatening one. Lead by inspiration, not fear.
Leadership is not necessarily something you are born to do. Leadership is a skill that can be learned and is continually developed over a lifetime. There are formalized training courses where leadership skills can be honed, but most valuable leadership lessons don’t come with a certificate or diploma.
Leadership is not an invisible guiding hand. Leaders must be visible. Even if a leader never says a word, he or she should leave behind plenty of evidence of leadership. As the Chinese proverb tells us, “It is not the cry, but the flight of the wild duck that causes the flock to follow.”
Leadership is not simply a matter of empowering others to make decisions. There is often a need for a final arbiter, a last word on a subject. Leaders do not shy away from casting that “deciding vote” after weighing the input of others.
Lastly, leadership is not measured in recognition or praise. The late Dean Smith, head coach of the University of North Carolina’s men’s basketball team, told his players they should always point to the teammate who passed them the ball for an assist. Leaders make sure others are recognized for their contributions.
The best leaders learn the definition of hubris: excessive pride or self-confidence. The landscape of history is littered with the personal destruction of people once thought to be great leaders – and their downfalls are almost always linked to hubris. Genuineness, authenticity, a little humility and generosity of spirit go a long way toward gaining the respect of those you want to lead. In fact, the best way to lose someone’s respect is to demand it.
We live in an era when effective leaders are not so easy to find. Ironically, it’s also an era when there is a great thirst for leadership. This presents all of us with the chance to emerge as leaders, in our work lives, our families, our faith communities, our schools, in whatever capacity we choose.
If you exhibit the true traits of leadership, people will follow. The question is not so much where you will lead, but how.