The meaning of Leadership – Part 1

Leadership – such a short word, if you think about it, to express so many things. The beauty of it, of course, is that it means different things for different people and it’s so complex that we could spend days, if not weeks, talking about it.

I mean, honestly, think about the tons of articles, videos, podcasts, books, conferences, workshops you’ve heard of yesterday? This last week? Month? Year?

That’s not going to stop, by the way. One way or another, we’re all becoming leaders, in our own lives and ways. There’s such a need for leadership to stop being a gift that only a chosen few were born with, but for it to become the norm in our own lives.

Leadership is, after all, a skill which we can learn and use more often and benefit more from. It is, of course, a complex, skill, which involves several components that could be added by each and every one of us, in different proportions and different combinations.

There are, though, a few traits of leadership that are being repeated, over and over again, by those who lead, by those who are being led, by those who want to become leaders and those who observe them.

This is the reason why this is going to be a series of articles about leadership, exploring elements that keep showing up when we speak about examples of leadership. This is, if you will, the general recipe to which you can and should definitely add your own ingredients, mixes, spices, in the amounts that work for you.

Ingredient 1 – Vision

“Would you tell me, please, which way I ought to go from here?”

“That depends a good deal on where you want to get to.”

“I don’t much care where –”

“Then it doesn’t matter which way you go.”

― Lewis Carroll, Alice in Wonderland

Definitions

Sixteen years of working with lawyers taught me, among others, one great lesson: we need to define things before we start describing them. It can prove to be a very healthy exercise, by the way, that saves a lot of time.

So, in good old lawyerly spirit, let’s look at some leadership definitions (first thought that comes to mind is ‘how hard can it be, the word is clearly formed of ‘leader’ and ‘ship’ – pretty clear to me! But well…)

  1. A simple Google-ing exercise reveals these three options:

Going deeper in this exercise, I realized I needed to actually look up the word ‘leader’ if I wanted a better definition.

  1. So here it is defined in the Merriam-Webster dictionary:
    1. a person who leads, such as:
      1. guide, conductor – ‘The tour leader recommended several restaurants in the area.’
    2. a person who directs a military force or unit – leaders of the army
    3. a person who has commanding authority or influence – a leader in the reform movement
    4. the principal officer of a political party – a party member chosen to manage party activities in a legislative body
    5. conductor – the orchestra’s leader
    6. a first or principal performer of a group – The concertmaster is the leader of the violin section.
    7. a horse placed in advance of the other horses of a team
  2. The good old Wikipedia itself is rather good at defining both leadership and leaders:

Leadership is both a research area and a practical skill encompassing the ability of an individual or organization to “lead” or guide other individuals, teams, or entire organizations.

  1. Leadership expert Warren Bennis once stated, “leadership is the capacity to translate vision into reality.”

And I think, of course, that’s the whole point. There can be no leadership without vision.

And it’s easy to imagine that when we think about the examples we found in the definitions of a leader, right?

  • Would you go with a tour leader that has absolutely no idea where he’s taking you?
  • Can you imagine a conductor that has no idea what concert the orchestra is supposed to play?
  • I particularly liked the horse example because, in fact, how could it lead the others unless he knew where he was going, while they all headed the same direction.

Let’s make Alice a leader

Returning to our initial quote from ‘Alice in Wonderland’, let’s see why vision is such an important element of leadership, and such an important skill for a leader to master.

Vision sets direction (or directions). NOT ways, just directions. And that’s important because it gives everyone, including the leader, a purpose, an image, an idea and inspiration of HOW they will get there.

Again, it doesn’t mean that everyone must follow the same path or else. It doesn’t tell you there’s only one way of getting there.

It’s like planning for your next vacation. You’re with your family and you say ‘lets go see the Northern Lights this year, it’s not something you see every day. That’s it, that’s the vision. All the rest are paths and ways to fulfill that vision: how you get there, by plane, by car or by boat, will you be camping or not, how many days you spend where, who does the research, who buys the tickets, etc.

All vision does is to allow all the people in that story choose paths, contribute their own talents in walking and maybe even building those paths, discussing where each path intersects the other and agreeing they will all meet at the destination.

Vision allows the people in the story to transform, to become heroes of that story, to create it together.

It takes a leader to have that final meeting point clearly pinned down on the map – it takes a great leader to have anyone in that team pin that point on the map, blindfolded.

What vision does is start a movement and a commitment. It gets all hands on deck and eyes forward. Where vision lacks, everyone either wonders about or walks out. Or they ask the Cheshire cat which way to go.

Now, obviously, simply having the vision is not enough. What matters immediately after is how you communicate that vision. That’s why ‘communication’ is the second episode in this leadership series. Stay tuned.

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