A Leader Is…

How do you complete that definition? What are the specific characteristics that define a leader? What are the requirements and opportunities that delineate leadership?

Looking around popular culture and workplace wisdom, we might easily expect to hear words like influence, responsibility, vision, and decisiveness.

I agree that these are qualities that are desirable in most leaders. But the truth is that these attributes are not exclusive to good leaders. We should hope to find people that impact those around them at every level of any organization. We should value those that engage in tasks from a deep sense of ownership, and who pursue a compelling idea of what could be achieved for the future. Those that know their minds and act with conviction bring a strong sense of values to their associations.

Our modern culture has chosen to define leadership very broadly, and we have lumped a large number of characteristics into that category. The result is that we often overlook and devalue the other participants in our group endeavors, the followers.

We have created an unhelpful definition of leadership, one that doesn’t truly set leadership apart for the unique role that it is. As a corollary, we have also thus failed to effectively define followership, and to determine what qualities are necessary for following with excellence.

So many of the attributes that we ascribe to leaders and leadership really aren’t the sole purview of those that hold formal titles of responsibility. By attaching such a breadth of notions exclusively to leadership, our society has set up a framework which almost forces everyone to pursue and measure themselves as a leader. This dynamic takes attention away from serious consideration of the nature of our followership, and at the same time causes us to use shallow language to ensure that everyone does see themselves as a leader.

(See this dloadfree downloadable resource to facilitate your own reflections on leadership & followership.)

How often have I heard such statements like “all teachers are leaders” or “all Christians are leaders”? We make these statements because we have attached characteristics which should be nearly universal and categorized them as specific to (what should be) a relatively narrow segment of any organization. Are all teachers influencers? Do most Christians have a vision for the future? Yes, but it’s not because these are leadership qualities; in fact, it’s the exact opposite: these ideas are true because these qualities of influence and vision are not exclusive to leadership but rather universal aspects of excellent followership.

The best that we can do—as an organization, a congregation, a community, a society—is to consider deeply what makes the roles of leader and follower truly distinct, the two sides of this crucial dynamic of relationship where excellence is needed on both sides in order for any group to be as effective as it can be in maximizing the full scope of human resources represented.

In my book, Embracing Followership: How to Thrive in a Leader-Centric Culture, I spend several chapters building up a picture of excellent followership. Only by starting from there do I believe that we can truly create a definition of leadership (and leaders) that will finally lead to us rightly understanding the variety in roles that will promote our mutual understanding and a proper valuation of everyone involved.


You might also like: A Leader is Best…?

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