Defining Leadership

One of the most straightforward ways to define leadership is that a leader has followers.

Do not confuse followers with employees. Many employees will do what is needed to keep their paychecks. Followers choose their allegiance based on the vision of a leader and their belief in that person’s ability to deliver. So, in order to lead, one must be headed somewhere. Whether leading a group to a destination, or leading in the development of an idea, a leader must pursue a destination, outcome or vision.

But our educational system, right up through B school and middle management, does not focus learning on identifying or creating outcomes. Instead, we are trained to solve problems. We start with “Put the blue chip on the blue spot” and work our way straight up to business calculus.

Excellence at problem solving makes us very responsive to the problems that show up at our office door. But this reactive orientation means that a leader is spending more time fielding problems than purposefully creating and pursuing a vision. A leader must rise above simply reacting to what the world throws in favor of – or at least in service to – pursuit of a defined outcome.

So a first and fundamental criterion for leadership is that the leader spend more time defining and pursuing an outcome than reacting to the day-to-day challenges of the business. That then leads us to the next question: What are the key leadership competencies needed to envision and pursue goals?

In July 2007, I wrote here about the importance for leaders to develop both task and relationship skills. That column positioned task and relationship abilities as equal contributors to skilled leadership. Neither is more important, and a skilled leader will have capacity in both domains – which takes us to an understanding that a skilled leader spends relatively equal time and energy on task and relationship issues, and more time using those skills in pursuit of a clear vision or outcome than firefighting.

Now before you fire up the word processor to tell me that this model is not realistic, let me assure you, I know. In a perfect theoretical world, a leader would be fully balanced between task and relationship skills and spend almost all of his or her behavioral capital in the realm of creative capacities, actively in pursuit of a well-defined vision.

But that leader, like that world, is theoretical. Data centers go down, shipments are delayed, valued employees quit, vendors fail to deliver, and all manner of other disasters demand that leaders react – and quickly. And as human beings, we each have our strong suits and are generally either more comfortable in the task or relationship domain. So staying in this idealized state of balance is a virtual impossibility.

What research shows in study after study, however, is that many leaders spend more time than they realize or would choose to spend reacting and often will play only to their strengths in terms of task or relationship orientation. In this way is born the micromanager or the visionary who cannot organize a project team.

The number of competency models and tools available to measure leadership abilities is almost endless. In the coming months, I will walk you through a fundamental meta-model for leaders that follows the path of one of leadership’s fundamental purposes: leading change. Starting with the power of a compelling vision, we will go on to look at great examples of execution, emotional engagement and systems thinking.

But as a starting place, have a look at your calendar for the last 30 days and ask yourself how much of your time was spent in pursuit of a well-defined vision vs. day-to-day challenges.

Originally published in Arkansas Business, Barry Goldberg On Leadership, October 12, 2009.