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What Does Leadership Mean?

Believe it or not, there isn’t a right or wrong answer to this question. Leadership takes on different meanings depending on the person who leads and the people being led. On any given day, leadership can mean teaching, coaching, assigning, cheerleading, counseling, guiding, correcting, protecting, explaining, and observing. Leadership asks you to fill out forms, chair meetings, hold hands, explain decisions, think about the future, and resolve conflict. None of these actions or tasks will happen discretely; usually they’ll happen all at once. If you thought becoming the boss would new entrepreneur, you’ll discover that you have less control over your daily activities as you work to help and support the people you lead.

The trap I see new leaders fall into most often is the inability to see that their work has fundamentally changed. Since leaders are typically promoted because of their technical skills in an area–they were really good at dealing with customers so they were promoted to lead others who interact with customers–it is predictable that the new leader will continue to practice the skills that got them the promotion rather than understand that they have a whole new skill set to develop. No one has explained that their primary responsibility has shifted from doing to helping others do.

Since so few organizations provide the forum for discussing and learning leadership skills, you’re going to have to have the discussion with and for yourself. Start by asking yourself what leadership means. Review your opinions of those who led you in the past. What did you admire about their behaviors? What behaviors did they exhibit that actually got in the way of your doing your job? give you more control of your time and tasks, think again. Like the

Identify the best leader you know inside your organization and invite them to lunch. Ask them to describe their view of leadership and how they developed it. Then, seek the company of a leader you admire outside your organization and ask them the same questions. Compare the responses. You might be surprised by how much the culture of an organization influences perceptions about leadership. If you have the time and opportunity, have this same discussion with a few additional leaders. But, make sure you do at least two.

After your research is done, go back to the original question, What does leadership mean? and answer it for yourself. This is a pencil and paper answer. Write your own definition of leadership and post it where you can see in it your office, put it on the back of one of your business cards and carry it in your wallet, and make it the screensaver on your computer. Just don’t chisel it into stone. As you grow into your role as a leader, you’ll probably want to revise your definition. Not because your first answer was wrong, but because your later answers will be better for the experience you’ve gained.