Defining Leadership: What It Is; What It Is Not.

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Defining Leadership

What really is leadership? I can provide several definitions from great authors and leaders, but I will like to work to the basics, looking at its root. Leadership is ‘leader’-‘ship’, i.e. the ship of a leader. What is a ‘ship’? It is a means of transportation from one place to another. So, what does it mean to ‘lead’? The noun meaning of ‘lead’ according to the Merriam-Webster dictionary is to be the first, to be in a position of advantage, to be in the forefront or ahead, to be top or take initiative and the verb meaning of ‘lead’ is to serve as a channel, direct a course or to guide on a way, especially by going in advance or forward. A ‘leader’ on the other hand (hold on, before you reach for your dictionary), simply put, is someone who satisfies the above context. To piece the definitions together, leadership means:

  • the means of moving ahead
  • to direct or chart a course to be the first or to move forward
  • to serve as a channel to place others in a position of advantage

Now that we have established the meaning of leadership, let’s discuss what leadership is and what it is not. I will use the elimination approach and start with what leadership is not.

What Leadership Is Not

  • Leadership is not a reward for long service – While consulting for several companies in the past, I have seen this error made severally. There seems to be an assumption that since an employee has been in an organisation for a long time, the logical next step is for them to lead. Long service, although may be an advantage to a leader, it is not a requirement for leadership and should not be the sole reason for rewarding people with leadership role.
  • Leadership is not a special trait that only a select few possess. It is not inborne; it can be developed. Yes, the charisma may come more easily for some, but leadership is more than that. There are training courses for leadership, you can be mentored/coached to lead, and you can learn to lead from other great leaders. Leadership is not for a select few, anyone can learn to lead.
  • Leadership is not just about influence. That you have great charisma and can sway people with your words or style or get them to submit to you doesn’t necessarily make you a leader. Influence is beneficial in leadership when combined with other attributes. Influence alone does not make you a leader. While I am on this table, let me shake it well, that you are a social media influencer does not make you a leader. We shouldn’t misconstrue these things.
  • Leadership is not superiority; it doesn’t mean you are the smartest person in the room. Superior talent, skill, network, qualification, etc. does not make you a leader. That you are a leader, does not mean you are superior – you do not become a leader because you are superior neither do you become superior because you are now a leader.
  • Leadership is not a personality type. No one personality type is best for leadership. Your being introverted or extroverted does not place you in a better position to be a leader.
  • Leadership is not about instilling fear in people. While good leadership comes with reverence, the leader does not start out with that objective. In fact, fear and reverence are two different things. When people flee at your presence or tremble at the thought of you, it is no longer leadership!
  • Leadership does not mean been exalted, somewhat like been on a pedestal where you cannot be reached, addressed or even corrected. Leadership does not mean closing the access that others have to you. It doesn’t mean you are above the law.
  • Leadership does not mean using others to achieve your goals. I have saved this one for last because I know some people will raise their eye brows here. You thought leadership was about setting goals and marshalling the team to achieve them. That will make you a good manager, not necessarily a leader. Sorry to burst your bubble.

I have identified what leadership is not so that you can eliminate them from your mind set and begin to rethink leadership.

What Leadership Is

Going by the definition of leadership provided in this article, I will use the analogy of the ship. I will liken the ship to the organisation or entity, the captain to the leader, the people on board the ship to the followers. There are three primary responsibilities that every leader must excel at:

  1. Clarify the Destination: I consider this the most important job of the leader because every other activity carried out by the leader revolves around this. If the vision is not properly crafted and communicated, the ship will be headed nowhere. There will be confusion, resources will be wasted – you don’t know what’s needed or how much is needed, etc. A properly crafted vision must be one that is shared and one that advances the collective. It may emanate from the leader, but everyone on the ship must buy into it. Otherwise, one follower will reach for one sail to increase the speed and the other will be trying to make a turn at the same time. What you have is chaos, and eventually, destruction of the ship. The destination or vision must be clear, shared and well communicated. Clarifying and communicating the vision also helps ensure you have the right people on the ship. The people on the ship are not taking a jolly ride, they must be people who also desire to go to the planned destination. It shouldn’t just be the leader’s vision, it should be everyone’s vision.
  • Chart the Course: There is a Yoruba adage that means, there are several entry points into the market. When a clear picture of the destination or vision has been shared, the leader must chart the course to the destination. How do we get there? in what state do we want to get there? when must we get there? Craft a strategy, develop a plan to get there. The plan must be clear; clear enough for everyone to grasp it without you being there. It shouldn’t be your plan; it should be our plan.
  • Sail, adjust, sail: Once the vision is clear, and the strategic plan has been adopted, all that’s left is to sail. Harness the collective capacity of the people and sail. Sail according to plan, sail towards the vision. The winds will blow, course-correct and continue sailing. If circumstances make you lose sight of the vision, review the vision now and again to strengthen your focus and ignite passion. Keep inspiring the people to keep their gaze on the vision and fully apply themselves and you will arrive the destination soon enough.

Three simple responsibilities, you may say, but the establishment and sustainability of organisations rest on the leader’s ability to skilfully execute them. Successful leadership requires trust, heart and grit – I call them the pillars of leadership. I will talk about them in the next publication.

Are you currently in a leadership role? Do a quick self-assessment on how well you are faring on these responsibilities. Also check yourself against what leadership is not. If you see areas that you are doing well, give yourself a pat on the back. If you identify areas of improvement, pen them down and seek ways to close the gap. We need more leaders. Leaders who will help us see a new horizon, who will skilfully chart the course despite our diversity and advance the cause of our organisations.

-Oluwatosin Oyebola

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