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Try searching Amazon for books about leadership. You’ll get over 60,000 results. OVER 60,000!
Why do we need 60,000 books about it? All in all, we know what leadership is, right?
Well, as it turns out, we don’t.
There are numerous perspectives out there and one fundamental disagreement about what leadership is or how to get better at it.
The good news is, most definitions of leadership fit into two broad categories. Let’s boil it down:
Who can be called a leader?
On the one hand, a leader is a person who has a supervisory or management role or title. On the other hand, though, a leader is a person who supports and guides a group to work toward common goals.
The first definition is based on a person’s formal role within an organization. It’s all about the position. The second definition is based on the function the leader serves. It’s about the person in relation to the group and its outcomes.
Most popular books and articles about leadership either explicitly or implicitly define leadership in terms of who is in charge, as does much of the academic study of leadership.
Shockingly, the assumption is that leadership is exclusively about the position, not the actual person.
How do you know if someone is a leader? Easy, you see if they have a title that implies their role is a leadership role.
How do you study leadership to understand what it is about? Peasy, you find people who are in leadership positions and study what they are doing.
And this is where the vicious circle begins—
How misconceptions about leadership build up
Who writes books about leadership? People who have been in leadership positions.
Whose leadership books get published? Those who have had leadership titles in companies with recognizable brands.
How do you get better at leadership? You read those books. The authors must know something about leadership, because they have been in leadership positions, right?
Maybe not. Let’s look at some data:
- A large global survey of employee attitudes toward management found, amazingly, that less than half of respondents said they trusted their boss.
- Another study suggests that about 50% of employees who quit their jobs do so because of their managers.
- Moreover, research indicates that somewhere between 30%-60% of leaders (those in leadership roles) are actively destructive to their organizations.
Considering these abysmal statistics, it’s likely that many authors of popular leadership books are part of the problem, not the solution!
We can’t assume that people who are or have been in leadership roles have a talent for leadership or can tell us much about how to be effective leaders.
And whether you like it or not, that goes for you too. That can mean two things: perhaps you hold a managerial position, but are anything but a leader. Or you’re a regular “specialist” on paper, but a true leader in reality.
The true nature of leadership
If you really want to understand what leadership is about, it is useful to start with three fundamentals about humans:
- First of all, we are biologically wired to live in groups. We always have and always will be group-living creatures.
- Secondly, because we are group-living, we are motivated to get along with other people because there is safety in numbers.
- Finally, we are also hard-wired to compete for resources because better resources maximize our individual chance for survival.
So, there’s the rub:
Those needs are at odds, and when unmanaged in groups, the groups fail. The most successful groups are able to get along and get ahead.
People are rarely balanced across these two motives. Some people may be overly careful about going along with the group to maintain positive regard and avoid conflict. If the whole group is overly focused on harmony, it will lack direction. They may be happy and kind to each other, but they’re unlikely to accomplish much.
Others may be overly competitive in a way that destroys group harmony and safety in numbers. If group members are focused on competing with each other, the group will likely be directionless too, because of competing perspectives on what the direction should be.
They will be infighting instead of focusing on accomplishing common goals or overcoming external threats to success (e.g., other groups or companies).
Only when both motives are managed and balanced within the group can it grow stronger and achieve its objectives. That was true thousands of years ago for groups living in caves, and it remains true today in the modern corporate world.
A more productive way to define leadership is about group outcomes
The purpose of leadership is to help group members balance needs for getting along and getting ahead in a way that maximizes the group’s success.
If we define the purpose of leadership as helping the group to succeed, suddenly a title or one’s position becomes irrelevant, and we have a window into what leadership really is.
So, back to you and the question of whether you are a leader.
Don’t trust yourself on this one. A lot of us tend to think we are better than we actually are. Besides, it really is unimportant what you think. It’s critical, though, that the others you are trying to lead think you are a leader. After all, they are the ones who will choose whether or not to follow you.
So, how do you find out whether others think you are a leader?
The good news is, there are three good ways to gain insight into your current leadership ability and how to be a more effective leader.
First, group results are the ultimate test.
Have you been able to lead groups that were successful? If you have led groups whose outcomes were easily definable and measurable, there are data available to help you answer this question.
Think about customer service call centers, for example. They typically track a host of metrics, including customer satisfaction, time from customer engagement to problem resolution, cost of problem resolution, etc. Comparing one call center group’s results to another’s is pretty simple and provides a good proxy for leadership effectiveness. But most group success measures aren’t that clear cut, so you need alternatives like the following two.
Second, 360-degree feedback tools can provide insight that may be valuable for helping you understand what you are doing well and what you may need to do differently.
Note, however, that if you think about leadership as a resource for group success, all four of the foregoing areas are important, even though only one of them may be labeled leadership.
Third, there is a great deal of high-quality research on the personality characteristics of effective leaders, and the four preceding essentials can be accurately measured.
Personality researchers have been able to predict leadership success from people’s personality characteristics, so this is a helpful way to gain insight into the question of whether you are a leader.
By using personality measures, you can gain insight into your ability to be an effective leader even if you have never had a leadership position!
Personality predicts leadership ability, so understanding your natural strengths and development needs concerning integrity, judgment, competence, and vision can help you strategically invest in development activities that will help improve performance in leadership roles.
But, back to the question, are you a leader?
As you work to answer the question, keep in mind the key points in this article:
- Leadership is about the ability to guide and help a group to achieve its goals. It’s not about your title or position.
- Leading is about providing a group with direction and making sure that the group works together to pursue that direction.
- The ultimate test of whether one is a leader is whether one’s group is successful.
- It is largely unimportant whether you think you are a leader. It’s critically important what others think—they are the ones who will need to follow you after all.
- Leadership effectiveness is not a mystery. Group results, insights from others through 360 feedback, and understanding the similarities and gaps between your personality characteristics and those related to leadership success all can provide you with the strategic insight you need to develop your skills in the best ways.
What about you, then? Do you think you are a leader? Perhaps you are, even if you don’t think so! Have you noticed that others are willing to follow you? Finally, do you think a group’s success always means they have a good leader? Let us know in the comments!