What Is Leadership?

 In Pei Blog

I like to think and write about leadership a lot, as you can probably tell from browsing this website.  I love that there are so many ways to look at it.  My passion is to make unique connections between these insights, and raise important questions for leaders to consider.

So how about starting with this:

Do you consider yourself a leader?  I’ve noticed that this basic question provokes a lot inside people.  Some common reactions include:

“I don’t think I have what it takes to be a leader.” Or:

“I’ve never really seen myself as a leader, or aspired to be one.  I’m content to leave that to others.”

What’s your first reaction?  I think it’s quite helpful to pay attention to that, because our reaction to that question reveals much about our definition and view of leadership.  Do you defer, thinking, “I’m not ‘leadership’ material (whatever that might mean to you – knowing enough, being extroverted or charismatic, etc).”  Or do you shy away, because you associate leadership with authority and don’t feel comfortable “telling people what to do?”

So what is the essence of leadership?  Is it about having a position or title?  Is it about experience, expertise, or skills?  Is it about being firm and decisive?  Being charismatic or a great speaker?  Is it about having certain values or character?  Can anybody be a leader?

Here’s a thought I’ve been considering in recent years:

Leadership is about seeing what is most needed or important in a given situation or relationship, and serving in light of that.

So if you’re in a working group stumbling about how to best proceed, the classic example of leadership would be somebody stepping up to take charge of facilitating the process.  But isn’t leadership also about the person in the group who might see the facilitator struggling, and step up to ask good clarifying questions?  Isn’t it about the group member who offers to pick up materials at the store to help the project?  What about the person who notices that one member doesn’t have a role and is feeling left out, and so asks him or her to help with a particular task?  Isn’t that leadership as well?

If seen more broadly, leadership could be appreciating the effort of somebody who worked very hard through a timely word, or sending an e-mail to a friend who is feeling confused and isolated.  It could be a husband noticing that there are dishes in the sink that need to be done, and that his wife is overwhelmed, and so he does it.

But leadership isn’t just about quiet, behind-the-scenes actions, or non-confrontational behavior that only says positive things about other people, right?  “What’s most needed” could be to confront a person who is engaging in abusive behavior towards others, or speaking up when something isn’t right in a situation.

If we see beyond just qualities and characteristics that we assume to be true of leaders, and beyond titles and positions,  it can be quite liberating and empowering.  We don’t necessarily have to be CEOs or presidents or tall or educated or good-looking to be leaders, nor do we have to think that leadership is about being “better” than other people… if it’s instead about serving them.

However we think about it, I believe the heart of leadership is something that should be accessible to all.  And viewing leadership this way can have a huge impact on the way we see ourselves and live our lives.  It’s hard to overestimate how much the way we view leadership impacts what we do.  If we think leadership is about whoever has the strongest or loudest personality, we may select people for leadership positions based on that.  If we think leadership is about speaking in front of people, and commanding the attention of a team or group, we may feel slighted if we’re not asked to do those things.  We will assume we can’t lead otherwise.

So the next time someone asks, “Do you consider yourself a leader?” how will you respond?


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