How does one become a true leader, and not simply someone in a position of authority?
What can be said about leadership that hasn’t already been said a thousand times? Probably not much, but that’s not going to stop me from writing another article about it!
Leadership is a very, very popular topic, especially among business people. Indeed, a search for books about leadership on Amazon.com yielded nearly 93,000 results — 92,000 of which appear to have been written by John Maxwell, who is nothing if not a prolific author of books on leadership.
The very publication you hold in your hands is focused on leadership, in conjunction with the annual 40 Leaders Under Forty initiative. Yours truly penned an article in last year’s leadership issue about the need for leaders to be passionate about their cause, and while I considered submitting the same article for this year’s issue to see if anyone would notice — and since everything to be said about leadership has perhaps already been said — I instead decided to get back to basics by discussing the underlying assumptions we make when we talk about leadership.
So, even though leadership has been written about ad nauseum, it can at times be helpful to take a step back and think for a moment about the terms we use when discussing leadership to make sure we're all on the same page. The words "leadership" and "leader" have multiple meanings and connotations, and it’s important to craft a useful working definition of the terms as we discuss leadership in the context of our organizations.
Perhaps the simplest definition of a leader is someone in some sort of authoritative role — a "boss," if you will. Of course, authority can be acquired by multiple means. It can be taken by force, as in a military coup. It can be bestowed by a third party, like a CEO promoting a mid-level manager. Or it can be granted by those being led, as with citizens voting for a democratically elected official. In each case, the person in authority is a leader, but we often view leaders as qualitatively different based on how they acquire and hold onto their authority. Thus, a Fidel Castro, who largely gained his position of authority by force, is typically not as esteemed for his leadership qualities as a Martin Luther King, Jr., whose authority arose primarily from the willing consent of his followers.
But why should this be? Is there necessarily something “better” about a leader whose followers do so willingly rather than by compulsion? We would almost certainly say that there is. And what do we make of leaders who gain their authority via means other than the voluntary acquiescence of their followers, but end up being much beloved? Or what of the leader who is launched to power as a grassroots hero, but turns out to be a scoundrel who clings to that power via force? Surely these people are all “leaders,” but our evaluation of their leadership likely shifts via the means they use to maintain and exercise their authority.
What this discussion boils down to is that we mean something when we talk about “leadership,” and what we mean is something much more than the simple act of leading people. All the books and seminars dissecting leadership are really just attempting to get at the heart of what makes a person want to follow another person. In the industry parlance, this is the substance of an “effective leader.” We don’t care about the literal definition of the word “leader;” instead, we are interested in the word’s connotations — the thoughts and feelings that arise when considering the topic. This is the source of our working definition of leadership: the set of qualities that inspire others to willingly (passionately, even) follow someone and adopt that person’s goals/philosophy/etc. And really, the identification of those qualities forms the bulk of most of the writing on leadership you can find at your local bookstore.
This definition of leadership carries with it good news and bad news. The bad news is that, even if you lead people, you’re not necessarily a leader unless you inspire people to willingly come along with you. Think here of the stereotypical horrible boss. He or she has managed to climb into a position of authority, but is unable to give his or her underlings a reason to get on board with the organization’s goals, other than their need of a paycheck. Under our working definition, this person is not a leader.
The good news, however, is that you can be a leader even if you don’t currently have any followers. Being a leader is less about authority and more about being the type of person others want to follow. I can virtually guarantee you that if you become the type of person who inspires others to catch your vision, the followers will come, à la Field of Dreams.
The only remaining question is this: How does one become a true leader, and not simply someone in a position of authority? All I can say is that you’ll have to figure that one out on your own. Don’t worry, though — I’m sure someone has written a book about it. iBi
Michael Fricke is a partner with the firm of Cover, Evans & Fricke, LLP, and the president of River City Title, LLC.