Leadership is one of the most common words to be found in job descriptions, management seminars, resumes, and Linked In Profiles the world over. Leadership and its derivatives are such common words in fact, that they often go by unnoticed, we assume others have the same definition of leadership as us. But often they don’t. We all interpret ‘leadership’ in our own ways.
I see it so often: “I’m a proven leader”. What do people mean by this? Did you organise the work of a few people, who were being paid to be there, who didn’t want to lose their job, and were fairly capable of carrying out their duties competently? Perhaps you approved their vacations and took them out for dinner now and then. To some, that’s a great leader.
Still, to others it is someone who empowered and engaged their people to go above and beyond the minimum. Someone who creates a distinct culture among the people they lead, simultaneously being a part of, but different to, the wider company or industry culture. Or perhaps the company culture is toxic and the leader saw that they had to create a ‘siege mentality’ to keep their team performing at full mast and keep the toxins at bay. To some, that’s the bar for a great leader.
What constitutes a great leader remains ambiguous as far as I can see.
As someone who has managed teams for over a decade in various countries and businesses, I should be no stranger to leadership. But, sitting here, after countless leadership training seminars, countless reflections on what I should do or should not do in a certain circumstance, and countless times I have been let down or frustrated by those leading me, I still find that it’s hard to form a coherent answer to the popular interview question “What is leadership to you”?
With that in mind, I spent some time thinking about it, and I present here my thoughts on what great leadership is and what it means. Broadly speaking, it’s about three things; direction, inspiration and liberation.
I think the most basic function of good leadership is direction. Letting people know what they’re supposed to be doing, the best way to do it, and how that ladders to the broader organisational goal. Since it’s nearly Christmas, let’s think of it as a team making Christmas dinner. At a basic level, as head chef, you should be putting one person on Turkey, one on potatoes, and so on. Telling them what is expected of them and helping them if they get stuck. This is not hard to achieve. Most people are fairly content in their jobs and will perform tasks you ask of them to the best of their ability, which by and large is satisfactory. So long as you are in the kitchen telling them what to do and when by, keeping an eye on things, lunch will be a success.
The next level involves inspiring your people to think for themselves, be engaged, and ‘own’ their responsibilities. It’s more than being told what to do and by when, it’s them taking ownership because they want to. So back to our lunch analogy, perhaps at this point you just tell them what time lunch needs to be ready for, and that you want a festive meal. They choose the ingredients and their own methods for cooking them. They will experiment and you can feedback on how they’re doing, but they are evolving processes and tactics on their own. If you are doing this part correctly, and you have developed the right abilities in your team to be self sufficient, you need only pop your head in the kitchen every now and then to see how they’re doing. You may also notice at this point, their confidence is so high they resent you ‘being in the kitchen’ too often. I’ve worked for at least one company where I’ve told VPs, “I wish you’d get out of the kitchen!”. It’s like a restaurant owner watching a guy chop carrots. If he’s previously been given the direction, has proven he can do it, and now has the inspiration to do it himself and improve on the way he was originally shown, then he can chop carrots, leave him be.
This is the third level of leadership and can only be achieved once the first two have been achieved. This is about providing your people with freedom to operate. Making sure they have the resources and support they need, and clearing roadblocks in front of them. This is when you become the restaurant owner. Your job is to make sure the supplies arrive in the morning and tell the team what time lunch is. Then leave them to it while you see to guests, and set the table. You stop others from going into the kitchen and disrupting the team. If you are truly at this stage, you can trust your team to deliver lunch. Check in if you want, but if they have been properly directed, inspired and you have liberated them, they will always be on course.
So in summary, my definition of leadership comes down to three levels. Direction, inspiration, and liberation. Easy to remember and easy to understand.
Which level are you at as a leader? Is it time to get out of the kitchen?