Thought of the moment

Are you a leader by name, or a leader by nature?

In our society, our workplaces and elsewhere it’s fairly easy to be a leader by name (i.e. job title), but that doesn’t make people a leader by nature (i.e. how they act).

After reading Alistair Campbell’s book on ‘Winning’ I really began to question what ‘makes’ a good leader? In our society, our workplaces and elsewhere it’s fairly easy to be a leader by name (i.e. job title), but that doesn’t make people a leader by nature (i.e. how they act).

There’s so much literature out there, management theories and (frankly) waffle on the subject of ‘leadership’ that it’s easy for aspiring leaders to get completely caught up in some utopian, theoretical notion of what a best practice leader looks like, that they quickly forget:

Leadership is not a party of one, by its very nature it requires two or more participants. It exists, is defined and is controlled by the people you lead, not by a title or abstract theory.

And so I ask you, are you a leader by name, or by nature?

Leadership by name
I had a very interesting conversation with a peer at another organisation about how she felt working for the people she worked for, and being led by the people who were her leaders. Let’s call her Helen.

Helen and I agreed that anyone could lead, irrespective of seniority, but what she said next really hit home with me, because it wasn’t some abstract philosophical nicety – this was straight from the heart of someone whose leaders were failing her and her team: they were leaders only in name, and not nature.

She said:

Having a title doesn’t make people leaders. Investing in people, leading by example, empowering, and most importantly respecting staff and making them feel valued, regardless of grade. That’s what makes a leader.

What struck me most about this definition of leadership was how easy all of those elements are, but also, how easy it is to mess each one of them up.

We can all read that paragraph and think ‘of course, I want to do all of those things, that’s obvious’, but each one of those traits or characteristics is built up of one hundred tiny things each and every day: the words in our sentences, the look on our face in the office, what we do for lunch – unfortunately, or perhaps fortunately – they all have an impact on us as leaders and as those being led.

Leadership by nature
No matter how much we all want to be the best leaders we can be, and our people to feel valued and engaged – there is a reality here, that it is not generally in the capacity of normal human nature to get every one of those few hundred things right each and every day.

But I don’t think that’s what Helen was asking, she recognised that it’s not about getting everything right, all the time – and leadership ‘by nature’ is not about ‘being born with it’. It’s about being genuine on your commitments to your people, what you try to do, and how you try to do it.

In Helen’s case, she knew it was unrealistic to ask for the ‘perfect’ leader who hit all of her criteria, all of the time – what she was after was leaders who she could see were genuinely committed to investing in their people, developing skills, empowering, valuing and trusting her – both in the things that they did, and how they did it.

Therefore in reality, leadership becomes not a ‘state of being’, but an ongoing process of trial and error, a two-way street where the team recognises that their leader is fallible, and the leader demonstrates a genuine commitment to those characteristics on a daily basis.

I won’t leave you with the usual pithy conclusion, instead some challenges for reflection:

  • How did you last invest in someone, did they feel like you were investing – or did you decide that for yourself?
  • How do you lead by example? How do you make sure your team see that, and understand why, or how you do the things you do?
  • What does ‘being respected’ look like for three key members of your team? What about for three team members who you’re not as close to?
  • How do you empower your team? How do you know whether your team feel they are being ‘empowered’ by what you do, versus being scared and ‘thrown in at the deep end’?


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