I have been thinking a great deal recently about the question, “What is a leader?” More specifically, what is the definition of being a ‘leader’ that I feel is most relevant for these times. Perhaps there is something in this last sentence – being a leader. What is the being of a leader? And what is the key quality or qualities that distinguishes a leader from a ‘non-leader’?
This line of inquiry came about as a result of many of the people I work with questioning why I had made the word ‘leader’ so explicit in my business plan and in the concept documents that depict the focus of my work. “Why do you only want to work with ‘leaders’?,” they would ask “What about those people who are not in positions of leadership?” This is the first distinction of leadership as I am learning to consider it – a leader is not the position they hold. I was recently listening to a podcast of Ron Heifetz (of adaptive leadership fame) make the point that there is a difference between authority and leadership. Heifietz rightly points out that we often consider a person in a position of authority and a leader as one and the same. However, when a person in a position may or may not be a leader. Just as a leader may or may not be in a position of authority. More often than not, ‘real’ leaders are not in such positions.
So, I began to think: If a leader is an individual who may or may not be in a position of authority, does this mean that we are all leaders? Yes and no. I think a key consideration is that of a leader’s way if being in being a leader. For me, this line of inquiry into a leader makes the distinction between the ‘being’ and ‘doing’ of leading. The former relates to the inner essence or presence of the leader and the latter denotes the outward actions of leadership. I recognise that this could be considered a somewhat simplistic approach to considering the qualities of a leader; however, I am continuing to learn that those leaders I really resonate have something that emanates from within their very core that is hard to put into words. And it certainly does not feel like one could construct a universal ‘competency framework’ that puts universal behaviours to my experience!
Kevin Cashman (author of Leadership From The Inside Out) was onto something when he said, “The leader and the person are one.” (he also states that “Leadership is an expression of who you are.”). However, is it accurate to assert that if the leader and the person are one then we are all leaders? We know that this our lived experience of each other. Intuitively, we know that ‘real leaders have something more – they resonate from a deeper place within. From this perspective, it is probably more accurate to state that we all have the potential of being a leader. I firmly believe that all people have a deeply powerful leader within, just waiting to be given life. I also believe that all people have an inner yearning to evolve into that potential – to step fully into oneself and to lead oneself (and others) from a grounded place that comes from deep within.
Perhaps Meg Wheatley (founder of the Berkana Institute and author of several books, including Leadership And The New Science) is onto something is her Institute’s definition of a leader: A leader is anyone willing to help. I connect with this definition of a leader, but it feels as though something is missing in how this definition relates to me and the work I am involved in (apologies to Meg Wheatley – I think you work is amazing!). After reading this definition however, I felt that I was onto something. I kept on exploring. Then I attended an Art of Hosting residential late last year that I feel provided me with the missing piece of the ‘what is a leader’ puzzle I had been working on. As part of a large group participatory leadership process, a participant made an ‘off-the-cuff’ comment that a leader is the one who can see. Ah ha, gold!
In connecting these two perspectives of what it means to be a leader, I sense that being a leader involves the combination of ‘seeing’ what lies ahead for self and others and the conviction to step up to that calling and help turn that vision into a reality. In other words: A leader is anyone willing to step up and help transform a vision for a better future into reality.
From the place of this definition of ‘being a leader’, there is much possibility. There are many questions a potent-ial leader might ask him or herself:
- Who am I, really?
- What is my purpose and unique contribution for my organisation and for the world?
- What are the possibilities for me at this time?
- How do I best understand myself and my unique approach to leadership, and how do I align the two in my life and work?
- What is the story of my life and how might this inform how I might best proceed into the future?
- How do I fit into the bigger context of the world?
- How do I explore the value of discernment in my life and work?
- What are my values?
- What am I ‘seeing’ and not seeing at this time?
- What is my personal vision and mission?
- How do I set an intent for this current phase of my life?
- How do I make wise decisions for my organisation, the community, and myself?
These questions invite the potent-ial leader to look inside and to see what arises from this place within. This is challenging work. In working with leaders to identify the unique expression of leadership that the most challenging and most important journey a leader can ever take is the one within. It is a path of inner conflict, uncertainty and tension. However, I am yet to work with a leader in exploring this journey who tells me that it is a journey they which they had not commenced.
How are you being a leader today?