What Is Leadership?
Updated: Jul 22
I often hear “so and so is a good leader.” But what does that really mean? Where are leaders going? And who, what, why, and equally important, how are they leading? I believe leadership is one the most misunderstood practices from the boardroom to volunteer organizations. As a result, I thought I would take some time to unpack this phenomena.
From my perspective leadership inspires others to do great and purposeful work as I have often said before. But I find that many people really don’t know what means to inspire or influence others in a way that is meaningful. Let’s take XYZ organization for example who has a great track record for getting amazing work accomplished for the people they serve in their community. They meet and surpass their goals and the organization seems to be innovative in its work. But let’s look at them a little more closely and ask what exactly is making them great?
Is the leader of XYZ organization working in partnership with the staff to create and achieve measurable goals? Is the staff treated fairly, given a flexible work environment? Does the leader understand their values and who they are in a way that makes them authentic, believable and ultimately trusted by others? Do they set goals as an organization, know how to collaborate with others by building relationships as well as ensuring the success of everyone on the team? And are they disruptive in a way that is innovative and forward thinking? Finally, do they recognize the achievements each person has made to the work that has been accomplished?
Or is the leader of XYZ organization lacking in good values and is willing to “get ahead” at whatever costs? Do they belittle others and take the credit for their work? Are meetings not being held, goal setting for the organization initiated, mission checks or any other communication coming from the leader? XYZ organization’s ‘great success’ will only be short-lived. Organizations like this cannot maintain this type of momentum because there will surely be high turnover and disgruntled employees. As these people leave the organization word gets out into the community. Let’s face it, people talk.
This type of leader is someone who has probably understood the traditional view of leadership really is founded in a militaristic ideal that glorifies competitive, controlling, combative, aggressive, and self-reliant individualistic behaviors. This typically creates all kinds of male dominated heroic images such as the macho cowboy saddling up to tackle the open western frontier and who also does battle against those Indian savages in conquering new territory. This ‘old west’ notion of leadership does not reflect a frontier that is collaborative, global, interdependent, or communicative. Instead, this kind of leadership is characterized by behaviors focused on accomplishing greatness, power, control, competition, and sometimes violence, is as useful as a transistor radio or VHS tape. Folks, this is no longer the preferred style to get teams and organizations moving in a direction of positive change.
And let me provide you with this additional tip: leaders lead people; managers manage people.
Leaders who tell people what to do and don’t know how to share leadership are managers. Things are managed. Remember this. Similarly, you cannot be a leader and be mean to people and expect to be respected because of the title. Unfortunately, people believe in managing others to their detriment. Look at the examples we’ve seen whether they are religious leaders, presidents, family members and supervisors. Somehow the idea is that threats, belittling and making people feel badly demonstrates power. At the end it only demonstrates the weakness in that individual and the recipient not liking you…one…bit.
This practice is in our organizations, our government and in corporate America…scary isn’t it? And I know you know someone like this…we all do!
Pele, Mia Hamm, Michael Jordan, Jim Thorpe, Maya Moore, Wayne Gretzky or Kerri Walsh Jennings will all tell you that the success of a leader is ultimately the success of the team. Great championships are won over and over again, not just one time, because everyone played a leadership role. There was genuine respect for one another, everyone contributed their talent and gifts to the team. And they recognized and appreciated each other’s efforts.
Another great example is Jalen Hurts who was a starting quarterback for the University of Alabama in 2016 and 2017. In 2018 he lost his position to another teammate and guess what? When most rising sports players are benched they transfer to another university. He did not. Even his teammates were asking why he wasn’t moving on. Hurts stayed with the team because he was a part of a ‘team’ and he wanted to be there with and for his teammates. "It taught me patience, and it also taught me to have a new profound appreciation for the game and what I do," Hurts said on an NFL Network show. "Taking pride in everything. ... It just took another step in growth. An appreciation for the game and appreciating every moment...is very important to me." It was because of the leadership Hurts’ demonstrated on and off the field that made him the quarterback for the Philadelphia Eagles. This is what good leaders do and how wonderful he began learning this at a young age.
And then there is the “what and why” of XYZ organization. Is the mission of the organization congruent with its practices? Are the values clear and is the leader and staff not only committed to the mission but is able to articulate the mission clearly and with passion so that they are able to inspire others? Good leaders inspire their members or employees so that they are able to be a cheerleader as well for the organization. Leaders modeling their behavior is so important which is why it’s important to have staff meetings where goal setting or some other type of strategic planning is held. It means that everyone around the table will have buy-in because they have participated in developing the future of the organization.
Southwest Airlines is a company that comes to mind because it most certainly has set itself apart from the rest of the airline companies. Just by face value if you’ve ever flown Southwest, the flight attendants are, shall we say, unique? That’s because employees are encouraged to bring and be their best selves in the air. As one of their top executives said in a recent travel and leisure article, “We call it living the Southwest way, but it’s folks that have a warrior’s spirit, a servant’s heart, and a fun-loving attitude” that comes to work. An otherwise boring set of safety procedures before passengers take off, which no one listens to anyway, becomes a rap with passenger participation. It makes us pay attention too. You’ll never find that at United Airlines. And this starts at the top.
Hugh Downs, journalist, once said, “to say my fare is not tied to your fate is like saying, ‘your end of the boat is sinking,.” That’s the impetus of the relationship between the leader, the members of the organization and the organization itself. Leaders need to create the optimal organizational climate in order to be truly successful in not only who you serve but how you take care of the people who initiate the service in the community. If you’re looking for a resource, one of the best books out there is The Leadership Challenge” by James Kouzes and Barry Posner. After surveying many leaders on what practices they used in their best leadership moments they came up with five practices that leaders should use to help find the leader inside of them. It really helps leaders to think about and understand how leadership works and it will make all the difference in you and who you’re leading. Once you really learn, then when you hear “so and so is a really good leader,” ask yourself what that means. It might not mean what you think it means!
Dr. Jocelyn Briddell is our anchor blogger. She is the Assistant Director of the Richard. A. Henson Honors Program at University of Maryland Eastern Shore.