You may think of yourself as a leader. Others might even call you a leader. Realistically, though, how you feel and even how others describe you is meaningless. Actions, not labels, define what you truly are.
People who drive limousines for a living are drivers. Those who paint houses are painters. A person who writes books is a writer. Pilots fly, programmers program, and leaders lead. If your daily work doesn’t include actual leadership activities, it’s time to accept that you’re not really a leader, but something else; something good and useful, perhaps, just not a leader.
More than a title, more than seniority
Leadership impersonation is nothing new. Despite extolling leadership ideals, we are often shockingly imprecise about what leaders really do. The actions of leadership, unlike those of driving, painting, and writing, can seem intangible or subjectively applied. It’s not surprising, therefore, that many have come to believe that technical skill or mere seniority are the prerequisites for earning a leadership badge. We blindly refer to people as leaders even when they exhibit no leadership characteristics, something we would never do, for example, when choosing a physician or even a plumber.
Especially today, workers at all levels of an organization dig into problems with both hands. They may work alone or manage groups of other people to root out issues and formulate solutions. They’re often “in the weeds,” and involved in tactical, day-to-day issues. They do good work, but these are not the qualifications of a leader.
Leadership is not a poetic ideal
In medieval times qualities like chivalry and honor were ideals for which to strive, the subjects of stories and epic poems. It can feel as though leadership is just such an ethereal ideal, something difficult to describe. Something you only know when you see it.
In fact, leadership activities, the very things genuine leaders do, are neither intangible nor mysterious. They have been documented over the course of decades in the works of Warren Bennis, Jim Collins, Steven Covey, Peter Drucker, John Maxwell, Tom Peters, Daniel Pink and many others. Like the skills of any craft or trade they can be learned through study and application. Leaders aren’t born but created, like most professionals, through practice.
Leaders take someone somewhere that person wouldn’t go on their own. They listen more than they speak. They constantly seek out new ways to achieve greater results. They inspire confidence and action with intelligence, empathy, service and transparency. They’re unflinchingly honest. They appreciate that real progress cannot happen by their efforts alone. They coach and cajole. And most of all, leaders make time to mentor and course-correct, to see that spark in someone else and nurture it into a flame. In short, genuine leaders make new leaders.
Before long we’ll be making resolutions for the new year. Easy to make—and easy to forget—new year’s resolutions are perennial punchlines, barely lasting longer than the ink in your notebook takes to dry.
For 2019, let’s try something different. Resolve to learn the true characteristics of leadership and to make those activities part of how you live life everyday. Commit to the development of your leadership skills no matter the role you play in business or in your community. Recognize that the effort you expend will cost time and energy, but that the return will be gratifying and benefit those around you. The world needs more genuine leaders; resolve to become one of them.