Leadership: To Be or To Do? That is The Question

leadership definition
Photo by Ono Kosuki from Pexels

Is leadership who you are or what you do?

Here is a challenging thought: what if there are no leaders, just acts of leadership?

We often think about leadership as a role, but maybe this designation misses out on large aspects of what leadership really is.

It makes us question how we define a leader. What is leadership? Is it an identity, a measure of influence or the impact we have?

Leadership as identity

So what? What if there is no such thing as a leader? 

The first time I heard this, everything inside cried out no! There was a rebellion at the very idea. After all, I am a leader. And if I am not a leader, what am I?

And in some ways, that’s the point.

As leaders, the threat of losing our role, position or title can be discomforting. So much of our identity is tied up with the names we give ourselves. We make the mistake of measuring our self-worth by our position and power.

Thinking about leadership not as who we are, but rather as what we do and how we do it is a releasing concept, as it empowers us all. We can all be leaders in this sense, no matter how many people are following us when we look over our shoulder.

So, don’t worry about the official number of people that you directly manage, or at least don’t make that your primary measure. 

Anyway, if you are a pioneer, you may not have any people follow you immediately. Equally, in your situation, you may be on your own and just be leading yourself. That is not a problem. Leading yourself effectively is foundational to leading others well.

Leadership is influence

My favourite definition of leadership is simply that it is influence. I like it because it is simple and is one of the few definitions that can encompass the many and various manifestations of leadership, be that leading teams, self-leadership, thought leadership, and so on.

Influence is related to power, the terms are almost synonymous, but power tends to lead to negative connotations. Power conjures up the idea of hierarchy’s, the haves and haves-not, of abuses of power, or powerlessness.

What matters is what you do and how you do it. Whatever your measure of influence, use it well. Take responsibility for your actions and make a positive impact.

Leadership is impact

Why are leadership acts more important than roles? Because leadership is impact. It is the difference you make to people and to the world.

This impact is manifest in various spheres for example:

  • Self or an individual
  • A team, or community
  • In a larger organisation, network, or society

We all have some level of influence in these different spheres. What you do with that influence is more important than how much power you think you have.

So, we need to ask ourselves: what is the impact we want to have on the people we interact with? What difference do we want to make in the world?

Leadership is…

It is hard to get away from leadership being part of our identity. We have language, we name things, to help us make sense of the world. We also have a role to play in every situation, every team and tribe that we belong to. We might well be that leader.

But let us not mix up titles with worth. Being a leader is about influence, about how we can create change in the world. The way we choose to use our influence defines the nature and measure of the impact that we have. That impact is our legacy as leaders, and that is what will matter, hopefully, way beyond the time we cling on to any title we might have.

So, it may be that there are both leaders and acts of leadership, but perhaps we should judge the former on the latter.

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