What is Leadership?
by Steven M. Smith
How do I define leadership?
Leadership is the ability to adapt the setting so that everyone feels empowered to contribute creatively to solving problems.
Leadership is an ability, meaning that a leader has a capacity to do something through talent and skill. Talent is natural ability and skill is proficiency gained through training and experience. Talent certainly helps, but it isn’t required. I know many people whose natural leadership ability was close to zero, but who through training, experience, and most of all, persistence, became great leaders.
Leadership is adaptive, meaning that the leader makes adjustments. A leader who fails to adjust to the territory will lose his or her way. Only fools willingly follow someone who is lost.
Leadership acts on a setting, meaning that a leader adjusts the state of the surroundings and people. A leader carefully observes those states and discerns how to change the setting most effectively.
Leadership empowers, meaning that a leader inspires confidence and self-esteem. That inspiration comes in many flavors. Some leaders inspire by bold talk; others by soft talk; and others by their example. There are many ways to empower.
Leadership acts on people’s feelings, meaning that a leader finds ways to link to people’s instincts or intuition. Leaders help everyone feel empowered, which in many organizations with bad histories is a leap of faith. If a leader can also provide concrete evidence of improvement that helps people feel empowered, wonderful. But the evidence usually comes after the leader’s actions produce the desired results.
Leadership creates contribution, which means that every member gives something. Sometimes that may be sharing an idea; other times that may be holding an idea in reserve and allowing someone else to arrive at, and share, the same idea.
Leadership is about solving problems, which means closing the gap between things as desired and things as perceived. Everyone works on the solution to intermediary problems while keeping in mind the ultimate problem — closing a gap for the client or customer.
Leadership fosters creativity, meaning imaginative use of limited resources. A leader who enables people to use their imagination is a step closer to solving problems more quickly and cheaply.
Leadership is often attributed to a single individual. It’s easier to communicate success stories that way. People like simple stories that contain cause and effect even when they are wrong. But the more complex story reinforces that everyone on a team can be a leader. The most successful teams create chain reactions of leadership. An adaptation triggers long chains of further adaptations that ultimately solve seemingly impossible problems.
I owe a deep debt of gratitude to Jerry (Gerald M.) Weinberg for the ideas behind this post. He epitomizes this definition of leadership. His books, workshops, and teaching have deeply influenced me. My definition for leadership is an adaptation of the one he uses in his book Becoming a Technical Leader, which I highly recommend. You will find Jerry’s writing a source of empowerment.