What is Leadership?

Most attempts to define leadership refer to one or more characteristics of a leader or to an action that a leader takes, such as providing a vision, getting things done through people, or challenging the status quo. Problematically, these are mere descriptions, not definitions. The individualistic actions a leader chooses to take and the idiosyncratic traits a leader exhibits do not reflect the essence of leadership.

To determine what leadership is, we have to take a deeper dive. Because experts estimate that about 95% of the workforce constitutes followers, followership must be a major consideration in managing people. Accordingly, we need to turn the instinct to follow the leader on its head and follow the follower. In other words, instead of focusing on learning how leaders lead, we must find out what it is that followers follow.

Watch the video and then continue reading the article to solidify your understanding of the definition of leadership.

I discovered the importance of followership when I shifted away from using a traditional management approach. As a top-down manager, I was always figuring out my next order, giving it, and then checking to see whether the desired effect was occurring among my reports. If not, I issued more orders. In this mode, I never listened to my people and had no time to do so. When I finally changed my approach and began paying attention to my people, eventually I learned from them how followers acted in the workplace and what they were following. And what were they following? They were following the value standards I communicated and using those to do their work. It was then I learned what my leadership was.

So leadership is the act of transmitting value standards to employees, which most then follow or use to perform their work.

The next question is: how do managers communicate their leadership—their value standards—to employees? Quite simply, through everyday experiences. These experiences largely consist of the support—or lack thereof—that managers provide to employees, such as tools, direction, training, parts, procedures, advice, documentation, information, rules, planning, and discipline. Each of these experiences reflects a standard for one or more values. Employees detect these standards, combine them with their previous experiences, and then use the resultant standard as a directive for how to do their work: how industriously, neatly, knowledgeably, caringly, respectfully, and so forth.

In contemplating value standards, I find it useful to think of a range or spectrum of standards from -10 to +10 for each value, such as from total dishonesty to total honesty, indolence to industriousness, arrogance to humility, dirtiness to cleanliness, disorganization to neatness, discourtesy to courtesy, disrespect to respect, indifference to care, ignorance to knowledge, and so on for all values.

For instance, if the tools management supplies to employees are hard to find and usually obsolete when found, this might reflect a standard of -4 for the manager’s work and respect for and caring about an employee. If most of the other things this employee experiences average close to a -4 for caring and respect, the employee will conclude the manager does not care about or respect him or her. The employee will then use the same standard to perform work; that is, the employee will work as if he or she does not care about doing a good job.

Similarly, if a manager fails to listen to his employees, or even if the manager does listen but fails to act as a result, employees interpret the manager’s neglect as disrespect. The employees internalize this standard of disrespect and, in turn, treat their work, customers, co-workers, and managers with the same level of disrespect. Likewise, if managers play their cards close to the vest, employees will adopt this standard of openness and be unwilling to share information with each other or with their managers. If managers do not readily admit their errors, neither will employees. Each of these actions or inactions reflects certain standards of certain values and constitutes leadership.

Most employees follow the example of their managers’ value standards. This pattern is so ingrained in workplace culture that managers cannot change it, regardless of their wishes. Rather, managers can only change what standards they transmit to employees through their support.

By understanding this definition of leadership, managers can make the changes that will help them maximize their human capital. In this way, they will reach the true goal of leadership: leading employees to unleash their full potential of creativity, innovation, productivity, motivation, and commitment upon their work.

With the goal of managing people set (go back if you missed it) and the definition of leadership clear, you have a solid strategy for excelling at people management and/or raising performance of a team, organization or company.

Next in this leadership skills development series:  How to Create Engaged Employees

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Ben Simonton

Ben Simonton Managed diverse groups for 34+ years, including as an executive in charge of a 1,300 person unionized organization. He made all the managing mistakes one can make, then devised solutions for 99.9% of people management issues. His mission is to take you beyond great to exceptional.