Defining Leadership

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I had an epiphany about a year ago.

I was sitting in a graduate school class called, “Leadership and Human Capital”. Having been through several leadership courses and programs, I knew what was coming. We were about to be challenged to define the amorphous concept of “leadership”. When we were asked to write down how we would define leadership, this time I had a rare moment of clarity.

In this post, I will tell you why I think this was the time where I found a definition of leadership that worked for me and then I will explain my definition.

I was sitting in class mere months after I took over the operations of our urgent care centers. We announced the transition in management from an outsourced partner to in-house management only months before. With so much to do already, the team also had to work fast, navigate a new out-patient environment, and produce results quickly. It was a tall order and one that required a lot of urgent and important work. On a daily basis, I found myself telling the team that we were going to have to, “Build the plane as we are flying it” and many of us could feel the metaphorical breeze and turbulence of an incomplete plane.

Taking you back even further, I had mentioned that I had participated in a number of leadership courses. From high school on, I was involved in several leadership development type programs. I will never forget my favorite one: As an undergraduate at Maryland, I had the good fortune of being accepted into the Rawlings Undergraduate Leadership Fellows program. Rawlings shaped my view of leadership and got me started on an important path of discovery and self-reflection.

The learning in Rawlings was experiential in nature. Professor Michael Speer taught my favorite class in the program. The average age in the class was 20 years old and the class was demographically diverse. When we arrived in the classroom, the desks were arranged in a circle. When class started, Professor Speer said, “My role here is a consultant. I will point out group dynamics as I observe them” and that was all he said. We stared at each other in silence for what felt like hours.

To break the silence, one of my classmates spoke up and said something to the effect of, “What exactly are we supposed to be doing here?”. Almost on queue, Professor Speer says, “It appears the white male in the group is trying to assert dominance”. What do you say after that?

After the initial awkwardness of the activity, we started to really notice and understand how to see unspoken group dynamics that exist among any group of people. Some of these dynamics are societal, some environmental, and some personal. But, I remember my biggest learning coming from that class in understanding that everyone brings something a little different into a group setting. To maximize the effectiveness of the team and build trust, it can be very important to talk about unspoken dynamics.

After graduating from Rawlings, I was fortunate to have many other similar experiences in other leadership programs. I picked up important guidance and tidbits from all of the programs, but it was Rawlings that introduced me to leadership theory, including servant leadership, which is a leadership framework that I believe in wholeheartedly.

In servant leadership, the leader is entrusted by his/her followers and the leader’s role is to help coordinate the group and help the individuals in the group achieve their potential. Servant leadership recognizes that a leader isn’t a leader if they don’t have followers, so the orientation of the theory, articulated by Robert Greenleef, is built around the followers. Simon Sinek builds on this in his book Leaders Eat Last, when he explains how treating employees well is a common denominator of successful businesses with longevity (he uses Costco as an example).

While I had been studying leadership theory and practice for years and had a pretty good sense of what I believed in, I had not managed employees yet in my career. While I had managed consultant relationships, I was going from having half of an employee reporting to me to close to 30. I remember telling my wife Sheryl at the time, “Well, I have been preparing for this opportunity my whole life, we will see if any of what I learned works!”

So, with that as prologue, I took my role as a new entity leader extremely seriously. I spent a lot of time reflecting on some key questions: What kind of leader do I want to be? What kind of leader do my employees need me to be? How do I lead for results while staying true to my values?

Thanks to that reflection and a lot of trial-by-fire experience through the transition, here is how I define leadership:

A leader is defined as someone who has followers. To achieve shared goals, each follower must:

  • Know where we are going
  • Know what their part is in getting us there
  • Want to be a part of it

To fulfill that definition, it requires work to establish a clear and shared vision/direction. It also requires spending time with every person and understanding their goals and to help people get excited about the vision/direction. It also functions to let them know that the leader is serious about it and not just paying it lip service or doing it temporarily.

I intend to lead in this way and believe that have been for the last two years. Merely coming up with a comfortable definition is an important exercise and has served as a helpful guide when making tough decisions. I owe a debt of gratitude to Rawlings and Professor Speer who gave me experiences to think about a reflect on even years later. Thank you.

TAKE-AWAY: Reflect and define what kind of leader you want to be well before you are in a supervisory role. If you are already in a management role, it is not too late. Ask yourself, “What kind of leader do I want to be?” and find resources that can help you explore different leadership approaches.