What is Leadership?

What is leadership?

I’ve been thinking a lot about this question over the past few weeks in relation to my real job, which some followers of this blog know, is embedded in the heart of Corporate America. This question–What is leadership?–is vitally important for businesses today. Everything changes so quickly, and our teams are constantly challenged to deliver more value at faster and faster rates. Without solid leaders, we will fail. But what is leadership? It’s actually pretty hard to define.

Great leaders are good with people, right? Well … not always. I’ve met several leaders who were quite awkward with people. And great leaders are action-oriented? True, but sometimes the best action to take is not to take an action. And, of course, the best leaders are skilled developers of people. Well … yes, but I think we can all find leaders in our past who were highly effective, and who we liked working for, but who didn’t really go out of their way to develop us beyond what we naturally got from our own actions on the job. At my place of work, we say great leaders will have five critical skills (which we then go on to name, and which we focus a lot of training and communication efforts on), and all of those are useful tools for a leader to have. But in all seriousness, I’ve met a lot of managers who worked well with those tools but who I didn’t feel particularly compelled to follow. Those are skills, tools that can be used to various ends. And, yes, leaders are best when they can use those tools well. But in my book having those tools does not make you a leader.

So, yeah, it’s hard to point just to what leadership is.

But I came across a sports quote yesterday that, I think, boils it down to one key element. Sports quotes are great for that, aren’t they? In the end, though, I think this one has it right. And in the end I think this one has it right because its simplicity makes it feel elegant.

It comes from a speech that New England Patriot Head Coach Bill Belichick gave this past May. Here’s the link:

In it he said these magic words:

We’ve had [great] players that would never say a word, [like] Troy Brown. He is never going to say a word … He would never be one to … give some big team speech. That just wasn’t his style. But nobody had more leadership than Troy Brown did. So it’s not about giving a team speech, it’s not about having some big presentation or anything. Leadership is about doing your job and putting the team first. When Troy Brown played for us, he returned kicks, he covered kicks, he caught a lot of passes in the slot, he blocked and when we needed him in some very critical situations he went over and played defense against some very good teams and very good players. Was it always perfect? No, but he competed as hard as he could.

He did the very best he could for the team and that’s all you could ask for; it didn’t matter what it was. Here is an example of a guy who was as good of a leader as I’ve ever coached who said probably less than any player of his stature that I’ve ever coached. So it’s not about volume or who’s the most talkative guy. It’s the guy who does his job and puts the best interests of the team and organization in the lead.

So, boil it down to this:

“Leadership is about doing your job and putting the team first. It’s the guy who does his job and puts the best interests of the team and organization in the lead.”

To this, I’ll add: All the time.

This begs two questions.

First, what does “doing your job” mean? And second, “how do you put the best interest of the team and the organization in the lead?”

Doing the job, to me, means showing up. Being present, and actively engaging in the work with your full attention. It’s treating the work with respect, and it’s doing the hard stuff even when it’s a bit unpleasant. It’s easy to lead when you’re winning, after all. But it’s sometimes hard to address the real problems when your group is struggling. At those times everyone wants to avoid the spotlight, and you find finger-pointing and obfuscation, and all sorts of other dysfunctional behaviors. Let’s face it, my homeland of Corporate America is the heartland of “the Emperor has no clothes” syndrome, complete with “Yes men” and other folks who explain away important problems in ways that don’t include leadership as the root of them. “Doing the job” as a corporate leader means addressing these issues in professional ways. This is tough for people in managerial roles (which can feel like political roles) because it requires us to be open and vulnerable to the idea that we might actually be the root cause of some of the problems–and very few people really get excited by making that kind of confession.

That is part of leadership, however. It is the core of the answer to question number two, which is terribly difficult because you have to be able to analyze situations from a selfless point of view, and you have to get that analysis right. And then you have to actually act in a similarly selfless fashion.


To be able to put the interests of “the team” first, you must first be able to define the team. In a sports environment, this is fairly easy. But for most situations I suggest “the team” is dependent upon situational context. “The team” could be an ethnic group, or a gender, or the country, or a single other individual who is being wronged, or it could be a family, or a corporate organization, or a single contributor in that organization, or … you get the idea. This last bit, I propose is one of the things that makes leadership seem so ephemeral. A leader has to get this definition of team right in each situation if she’s going to be able to get her actions right. And it’s hard because this changes. A leader who can’t or won’t change their perspective given the situation faces the very real possibility of looking foolish, or worse–leading their following in a direction that seems great, but doesn’t actually solve the problem (this is the ultimate issue with adhering to an ultra-strong, principal-based political position in all cases, regardless of the situation). Of course, a leader who does judge things based on multiple perspectives can sometimes leave themselves open to the charge of waffling by those who don’t agree with her if choosing the “right thing to do” is short-term bad news for a “team” they supported earlier. But a great leader is one who can adjust the definition of “team” properly to fit the situation. A great leader decides what the right thing to do is by taking into account the individual, the world around them, and the possible short and long-term implications of the specific situation, then putting them all into an action that people can see making “the team’s” lot better.

The main thing to keep in mind, though, is that in all cases, “the team” is NOT the leader. This means the leader is selfless in intent. Of course, the leader can, and often will, benefit from the actions of the team (that’s the point, really, the leader knows in her heart that the way for her to personally get ahead is to have “the team” succeed), but people follow that leader because they see the leader’s actions are driven almost completely through a focus on “the team’s” success rather than their own. They see the leader cares more about the world around them than they care for themselves, and then those people become inspired by that leader’s actions.

I think that’s got it. No matter what role a person is in, if that person fits this definition, I suggest she is a leader. People will look up to a person like this whether that person is a CEO, a manager, a contributor, or a “bench player” for that matter. All the rest of the things I discussed in the first paragraphs of this post are great skills to have, especially if you have a managerial role. But management and leadership are two different things. Management is a role. Leadership is a mindset. You can have all those management skills and still not be a leader, and you can be a great leader and not have any of those managerial skills. The world is full of emotionally compelling stories of people who led by example, after all, people who did the right thing in tough times, and who therefore inspired others to follow without having a single one of the skills we so often discuss in our corporate world.

So, what is leadership?

I suppose I still don’t really know. But I feel pretty good about this viewpoint. I believe it to be completely true.

A leader does the work, specifically including the hard stuff, and puts the needs of “the team” first. All the time.

Yes, I think that’s pretty much got it.

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