The Dictionary is Wrong

When leadership as a concept is described, it’s frequently portrayed as a relatively abstract concept. Wrought with perceptions, feelings, emotions, and subjectivity, the concept of leadership is not universally well defined. Dictionaries classify leadership as a noun, a “thing,” meaning the function of a leader or the ability to lead. My observations and experiences tell me decisively that this definition could not be more wrong.

Leadership is most definitely an action, a verb. It is not an intrinsic quality one possesses like the feeling of being happy. Leadership is a quality that only exists if it’s manifested outwardly. Your quality of leadership is evident in everything you do. True leadership is about setting a direction and leading others, by example, toward the same end. In a discussion of management vs. leadership in The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, Stephen R. Covey illustrates the difference well:

You can quickly grasp the important difference between the two if you envision a group of producers cutting their way through the jungle with machetes. They’re producers, the problem solvers. They’re cutting through the undergrowth, clearing it out.

The managers are behind them, sharpening their machetes, writing policy and procedure manuals, holding muscle development programs, bringing in improved technologies and setting up working schedules and compensation programs for machete wielders.

The leader is the one who climbs the tallest tree, surveys the entire situation, and yells, “Wrong jungle!”

But how do the busy, efficient producers and managers often respond? “Shut up! We’re making progress.”

If you’re not surveying your environment and setting direction, you’re not a leader. It doesn’t take positional authority, like a management title, to set a direction. It only takes the will to do it and a little bit of indluence.

But setting a direction and walking away doesn’t make you a successful leader. Leading by example is a critical component of leading others in the direction you’ve set. For example, if it’s important to you that people in your department start work by a certain time and end no earlier than a certain time each day, it’s important that you set the example. If people see you paying lip-service to a mission, a value, a policy, or even just an unwritten rule without following it yourself, your credibility is damaged. Damaged credibility as a manager has much bigger consequences in the long run beyond punctuality and timesheets. People may follow your rule if their job security depends on it, but they will likely resent you for it and quickly find ways to even the score with you. Every action you take as a leader sets an example, and that example can be leading people in the direction you want them to take, or it could have the opposite effect and turn people off if you’re not really leading by example.

If you’re a leader, or trying to be, and you’re frustrated by the behavior of others — take a step back and look at your own behavior. Are you asking for 110% but only giving 90%? Are you asking people to do things they see you’re not willing to do yourself? Are you asking for professionalism without exhibiting it yourself? Every action you take helps or hurts your credibility as a leader.

If leadership is an action, what are your actions saying about you?


2 Responses to The Dictionary is Wrong

  1. Nicole says:

    Have you ever read “The Laws of Power”? While I think it’s cynical, I think you should also take the more “performance” aspect of leadership into consideration. The “performance” of leadership doesn’t have to be insidious; sometimes it is just psychological as people need to believe in some kind of infallible, mythical authority to find assurance in their own actions as followers.

    • I haven’t read it, but I will. I think the word power often gets a bad rap because of the abuse people have taken at the hands of those who use it irresponsibly. Having “followers” doesn’t make you a dictator or a cult leader, it just means you have a message people are willing to listen to.


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