Most writing about leadership focuses on the position of “leader,” rather than leadership behavior. Leadership isn’t about a job title or a position, or about being a C-level executive, and it’s not about running a large organization. Leadership is a behavior and an attitude. It’s about taking a genuine interest in your people to create connections that get work done, achieve goals, foster creativity, and create even stronger bonds that endure the inevitable hardships.
With a definition like the one I just mentioned, anyone can be—and should be—a leader. A general definition of leadership is usually something like this:
Leadership is about creating and sustaining a vision for where the organization and its people want to go (answering the question, “Where are we going, and why?”), marshaling resources to accomplish the mission that comes from the vision, and allowing people to learn and grow.
One of the primary jobs of a formal leader is to develop more leaders because, if you’re not around, then someone else must step in. If, as a formal leader, you haven’t developed additional leadership talent among everyone in your reporting chain, then you’re a single point of failure.
Everyone is powerful and influential, and both are qualities of leadership. No formal leader can see the complete picture; they can’t know everything that’s going on, so they need others. As long as people in the organization make leadership bigger than they are, think it’s beyond their capabilities, and make it about changing the world or being “the boss,” then they give themselves an excuse not to expect leadership from themselves or others around them.
We’re not just talking about additional formal leaders, however, but making sure that everyone is a leader. Whether or not people have the job title, they can still be leaders.
Too many leaders engage in “transactional” leadership, rather than “transformational” leadership. Transactional leadership is just what it sounds like—it’s a give and take, it’s management and negotiation, and not much else. It’s about things and processes. Transformational leadership, and its cousin, servant leadership, are about people and ideas. They’re about inspiring others by demonstrating commitment, serving as a role model, taking a professional interest in people, and inspiring them to do more than just the minimum.
We must start with ourselves. You don’t know what you think until you put it into words. Write or share with others verbally what leadership means to you. Be thoughtful and detailed, and don’t let yourself get away with, “I don’t know.” If you can’t put into words what leadership means to you, then your people won’t know.
Here are some questions that can help you narrow down your beliefs about leadership:
Take the time to think through and write answers to the bullet points above. Then, be prepared to follow up with more detail as you share these answers with others.
Another important step is to ask others what needs to be done. No leader knows everything. ASK. Your people like being asked because it makes them feel valued and that their contribution matters. The more you ask, the more trust you build and the better information you get. What’s not to like in that dynamic? Plus, asking your people to write their answers and ideas for the exercise above will give you lots of things to talk about.
The saying, “Don’t sweat the small stuff,” is outdated because it’s all small stuff. Attention to the small stuff—the everyday details of everyday leadership—is what produces the big payoffs. And it’s not just everyday details about the business. It’s understanding the details—within limits, of course—of your people’s lives, both work lives and personal lives. One of the most effective ways of taking an interest is to simply have a conversation with each of your people. The frequency of the conversations will be up to you, but it brings to mind the old saying, “You can over-share, but you can’t over-communicate.”
One of the greatest gifts you can give another person is your attention. Encouraging them and listening is giving another person the gift of being heard and valued.
Years ago, a colleague related a story that her grandfather had inspired her with when she was young. As she was beginning her career and having qualms about whether she’d be able to make a difference, he said to her, “Never doubt your influence. You may be the only light that some people see.”