First Posted December 5, 2005, updated for today.
There are very few people I know who self-consciously identify themselves as leaders. Even people who are the senior managers of their organizations often do not see themselves in this light. This is unfortunate because many if not most of these people function in a leadership capacity everyday. The problem is conceptual on two levels.
Most of what we hear and read about leadership is about styles and techniques. In this sense, leadership is a subset of management. However, to echo Peter Drucker's famous statement, "Leaders lead people, not organizations." I agree, and would like to suggest that leadership and management are different things. One needs the other as you will see. But they are not the same.
So, the first conceptual shift we need to make is to see that leadership is about leading people, not primariy about organization of activities, tasks, the alocation of resources and the establishment of goals and priorities.
The second conceputual shift that we must make is that leadership is not primarily a positional thing. It is clear that organizations need their senior people to lead. But, I'd like to suggest that at every level, from every individual, that leadership is expected and needed. It all depends on what leadership is.
Here is how I understand leadership.
The Path of Leadership: Excellence, Initiative and Impact
The Path of Leadership: Excellence
Leadership is first and foremost a quality of an individual. In ancient times, this quality was described as arete or excellence. It was a quality of life lived. It was exhibited in what has come to be known as the cardinal virtues of practical wisdom, justice, courage and moderation. It was realized in the individual as eudaimonia, which is happiness or fulfillment. When the individual leader is functioning at this high level of human experience, it positively affects their ability to lead.
The first step along the path to leadership is to recognize that leadership is a product of character, not just skills and techniques of style.
The Path of Leadership: Initiative
The second path of leadership is focused upon the action of the leader. Leadership requires actions. Without action there is no leadership, and yet to often the "leader" does not act, and his or her passivity stands in contrast to the other members of the organization.
Leadership action is most clearly defined in the personal initiative that a leader must make. This action takes place in three areas - with people, through ideas, in organizational structures.
A leader initiates toward people to establish collaborative relationships that allow for the same leadership initiative to develop in the other. The character of the relationship is marked by honesty, respect and trust. This is the fundamental basis for communication. The collaborative nature of the relationship develops when both individuals recognize that there is a mutuality or sharedness to their relationship. In other words, when people see that not only do they have common beliefs, values and goals, but that there is a mutual benefit to be realized from the relationship, then the relationship goes to a more significant depth of relating. The ultimate level is when the relationship transcends trust and mutuality, and each individual commits to acting in such a way to honor the other person. Ordinarily, this is what happens when one person memorializes another who has died. The highest level of relationship is when one person willingly sacrifices their own benefit in order to honor or secure the benefit of the other. This type of relationship is rare, and is a mark of the highest character of excellence.
A leader initiates toward people using ideas as a tool for not only communicating, but for establishing purpose, focus and a vision for the relationships. Individual and organizational purpose are traditionally found in mission statements or visionary plans. These statements are intended to conceptualize the focus of action. A vision describes the impact of a mission statement. A plan conceptualizes how a vision moves from ideas to action. It is the leader's responsibility to initiate the conversation that establishes a common understanding of what the purpose and goals of the organization are. And it is the leader's responsibility to act as a interpreter of the vision. Ideas without communication are dead, and communication that does not lead to action is self-indulgent. As a result, the initiative that a leader takes is to constantly move from the abstract to the concrete, from the conceptual to the practice, from the idea to action.
In Organizational Structures:
A leader initiates within an organizational structure or setting. The purpose of this structure is not organizational perpetuation, though sustainability is a by-product. Organizational structures exist as a vehicle for enhancement and fulfillment of the collaborative nature of human relationships. The structure serves the relationships, not the other way around. Whatever the mission or purpose of an organization, the structure exists as a system for translating the talent and commitment of individuals into action that produces a desired outcome. It is the leader's responsibility to initiate the process that formulates a goverance structure, establishes a strategic plan and manages the outcome of the collaborative work of its members.
In essence, the leader is the person who takes initiative to move forward relationships, vision and the work that follows.
The Path of Leadership: Impact
The focal point of leadership is impact. In other words, leaders focus on creating change so that individual and organizational purpose can be fulfilled. However, if that impact is not clearly understood, then the organization turns in on itself, and exists to perpetual its existence.
Just as the character and competence of the leader determines the quality of the individual in the role, so also the organization. Organizations are a reflection of their people. If they lack the character of excellence, so will the organization. Therefore, a clear and compelling vision for impact is essential for establishing the relationships of shared purpose and individual initiative needed to achieve it.
The Circle of Impact image above provides a way to see the interaction of people, ideas and structure that is required to work in alignment in order to create impact. My Circle of Impact Leadership Guides provide a set of conversation tools for helping leaders and their organizations work together towards making the difference that matters.
A Company of Leaders, A Community of Leadership
I hope you can see that this conception of leadership is much more than the management of processes and resources. At the most basic level, it is the formation of a team of people who do not wait passively to be told what to do. They are a team of quality people who take initiative who do what must be done to acheive excellence as a team and as an organization. In this sense they are a Company of Leaders.
At a more profound level, they are more than a team, more than a company, but a community of people whose relationships serve to provide a stronger motivation to live lives of excellence. It is in this sense that leadership is fulfilled in becoming a Community of Leadership.