What Does It Mean to Be a Leader?


What Does It Mean to Be a Leader?

Recently, a simple Google search on "leadership" yielded 11.7 million Web destinations; refining the search to "leadership in business" narrowed the number down to a mere 3.9 million. Moving on to http://Amazon.com, I found 12,694 books on leadership for sale and about half as many books on leadership in business.

The numbers speak for themselves—we are obsessed with finding out what it means to be an effective leader. Leadership is the single most written-about topic in business. It dominates books about history and politics. Every day, leaders are analyzed, prodded, lambasted, and occasionally praised by the media. Over the years, I've seen effective leadership described as an art as well as a science, as Machiavellian, as being a servant of the people, as charismatic, as pragmatic, as primal, as quiet. The bookshelves overflow with leadership fables, leadership primers, leadership laws, even one-minute leadership guides.

I'll admit, the prospect of writing this chapter was daunting. So much has been written on leadership—what could I possibly add that hasn't already been written? Consider what some of the best business thinkers have contributed on the topic:

Warren Bennis: "[Leaders] know who they are, what their strengths and weaknesses are, and how to fully deploy their strengths and compensate for their weaknesses. They also know what they want, why they want it, and how to communicate what they want to others, in order to achieve their goals."[3]

Daniel Goleman: "Great leaders move us. They ignite our passion and inspire the best in us. When we try to explain why they are so effective, we speak of strategy, vision, or powerful ideas. But the reality is much more primal: Great leadership works through the emotions."[4]

Peter Senge: "[What distinguishes leaders] is the clarity and persuasiveness of their ideas, the depth of their commitment, and their openness to continually learning more. They do not ‘have the answer.’ But they do instill confidence in those around them that together, ‘we can learn whatever we need to learn in order to achieve the results we truly desire."’[5]

By definition, a leader is someone who has followers. We all know it's this simple, and that's part of the reason why leadership is so fascinating. Leadership strikes at our desire for power—but not necessarily power as it relates to competition. Power can also be about influence, about making a difference. We are social creatures, and we want to leave our mark. We all want the power to impact others, and the best way is to influence the societies we move within—to get the attention of those around us and move them to action.

After reading scores of books, after heading up my own company, after mentoring and coaching other CEOs, and after attending more than my share of seminars, I do know this: There isn't one "right way" of leading an Accountable Organization. It depends on who you are as a person. It depends on the people you're leading—who they are and how many there are of them. In other words, your effectiveness as a leader—both in inspiring action and building trust—largely depends on how you navigate context.

[3]Warren Bennis, On Becoming a Leader (Cambridge, MA: Perseus Books, 1989), 3.

[4]Daniel G. Goleman, Richard Boyatzis, and Annie McKee, Primal Leadership: Realizing the Power of Emotional Intelligence (Boston: Harvard Business School Press, 2002), 3.

[5]Peter M. Senge, The Fifth Discipline: The Art and Practice of the Learning Organization (New York: Currency Doubleday, 1990), 357.