Leadership is an overloaded word. It can be used to simply refer to people in senior level positions in an organization, to describe a certain kind of extroverted bonhomie that makes us feel good, or to describe what’s missing in an organization when things go wrong. Sometimes it’s simply defined as “I know good leadership when I see it’!
The problem with having such ambiguity is that it’s difficult to focus on improving our leadership skills if we don’t have a clear understanding of what it means to lead. Sometimes we’ll get advice like “be more like ‘Somebody Else’”. But in what way? What if ‘Somebody’ dresses nicely or always buys doughnuts on Fridays...is that what’s expected of us? They’re always punctual to meetings and return phone calls...is that what’s expected of us? I’ve even heard of someone telling their people “We need more cowbell! You know what I mean.” And aside from knowing that it’s an SNL reference, my friend had no idea what was meant.
In my years of coaching other leaders I’ve developed a simple definition that helps frame what I consider the right way of thinking about leadership:
There’s a lot going on in that simple sentence that provides good guardrails for developing leadership skills and will serve as a foundation for future blogs. For now, I’ll parse out a few important details to hopefully remove any ambiguity:
Good leadership doesn’t come from role power. You don’t magically become a leader just because you were given a title or assigned people to lead. Quite the opposite; leadership is sometimes best demonstrated in the absence of hierarchical control. A good leader is able to set a vision that influences people, teams, and organizations to take action and create desired outcomes regardless of where they sit in a hierarchy. Developing influence skills is a big success factor for leaders.
This is key to the definition of leadership: being effective simply means being able to successfully bring about intended results. This is different than efficiency, which is about maximizing productivity and minimizing waste. Those are good things to do, but the first goal of a leader is to get results. Leaders in the digital world are often faced with things that haven’t been done before or at least that they themselves haven’t done before, and so the focus needs to be first on delivering positive outcomes, then efficiency when you get into a repeatable process.
Thinking about durability of results and outcomes can really set you apart as a leader. Conceptually, it’s easy to accomplish a specific goal or deadline by forcing the team into a death march or threatening (and delivering) some form of punishment for missing the target. This approach can certainly yield a specific KPI but in my experience is not a durable approach to leadership. Said another way, durability is taking the long view; thinking about the team you lead and how they can continually grow and deliver results over the course of time. Of course near-term goals need to be hit, but if done with an eye to the future you’ll create strong teams that can take on anything.
All of these ideas bear further exploration but this should serve as a good foundation on what leadership is, and it’s been my experience that embracing these notions can really transform the way your organization operates.
Seth is the CTO at Bounteous where he sets the technical strategies for both his firm and his clients, and where he coaches technical and non-technical leaders.