What Really Makes You a Leader?
August 19, 2010
Topicsauthority, Character-based Leadership, develop leaders, experience, impact, leader, Leadership, position
A few weeks ago, I wrote a blog post referencing a recent family summer vacation to Hilton Head. I experienced such joy watching my children during that week that I felt moved to write about it. I found ways to relate my kids’ activities to “leadership lessons” that I thought were great reminders for us all.
Of course, when I wrote the story, I knew it wouldn’t be my deepest, most data-driven blog post. It wasn’t meant to be. It was intended to be a light-hearted and sincere anecdote that many people could potentially relate to. I hoped that possibly, readers might appreciate the leadership analogy coming from such a different, yet common, perspective.
It wasn’t my favorite blog post of all time, actually. I was blown away, in fact, by the amount of positive attention and warm, appreciative comments from so many readers. That is…all but one, anyway…
Several days after the story posted, my article was re-tweeted on Twitter and caught the attention of a best-selling author and former Green Beret, who is also a self-described leadership practitioner and team-builder. He re-tweeted the original message, along with his added message,
“More leadership gurus who’ve never led”
It struck me as a bit odd at first, but I completely let it roll off my back. The story was about my children, after all, and I could see where someone might take a more cynical view than I do and argue that I shouldn’t be looking to them for any leadership lessons. Okay, I can accept that…sort of…
What really made me scratch my head, though, was the fact that this Green Beret then went to my blog and left a public comment for me (and everyone else) to see. There, he asked,
“Who have you led and under what circumstances?”
I politely responded to him that I have led many people in different ways, most certainly, than a Green Beret. That said, I do believe that we have both demonstrated good leadership – just very differently.
So why bring all this up?
Honesty, I waited quite a while to share this story. I didn’t want to write this to defend myself with a list of certifications, accolades or references. I didn’t want to respond emotionally, getting everyone else all riled up and ready to come to my rescue. I waited, and I prayed, to be sure I could feel comfortable with my reason for sharing this with a broader audience.
And my reason is this…
I’m passionate about spreading the message of character-based leadership and the difference it can make in people’s lives as well as business.
I believe that leaders are everywhere, not just at the top of an organization. I don’t think you are required to have a big title or three decades worth of experience. You don’t need to have turned an organization around, managed hundreds of people, or even saved a life. You don’t have to be an author, speaker or Ph.D, either. (Please know that I mean no disrespect to anyone who has accomplished these things, though! These are incredible achievements!)
I believe everyone can be a leader from who they are and where they are. I believe that we can influence people around us in positive ways, and that can have an overwhelming impact on business results.
I believe that we can all take responsibility to bring out our best in every situation. We can identify our strengths and the strengths of our teammates, and we can work to build incredible teams that allow us each to leverage what we do best.
I believe we can all impact others around us by smiling more, caring more, understanding more and listening more. I believe that we should place the highest value on each other as unique individuals and that each person has a purpose that only they can fulfill. I believe that there is nothing more important than loving and appreciating others for who they are, and I think it’s okay to say that….even in a work setting.
I’ve seen my children behave as leaders, when they choose to go against the crowd and do what they know is right. And you know what? I tell them they are leaders for making that choice, and I encourage them to continue that behavior.
Always do what’s right. It does make you a leader. At least, that’s what I believe.
What do you think? Does it make us a leader to take a stand for what we believe is right? Are we leaders when we decide to have a positive impact on others around us? Is it leading when we bring our absolute best with an intention to build into others?
I’m not suggesting that everyone is qualified to run an organization, of course….but truly… can’t we all lead from where we are? Or does it really require a title or position where people report to us? To me, those things only give you authority. I think that’s very different than leadership. Do you?
Consider it. Please. And do leave a comment here.
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Erin there is no doubt in my mind that leadership is more than just leading an organization. You are correct that leaders emerge in different settings, under different conditions, and display different traits.
Does being put on the spot to “perform leadership functions” bring an added perspective to it? Surely of course. Yet doing it does not completely define it anymore than researching and exploring it.
Leadership is complex and situational. It has many dimensions and leaders come in all types. Green Berets for example lead with a certain focus, mindset, and in many cases produce amazing results. Likewise, a young entrepreneur who might not be able to lead a green beret cause can inspire other young workers and lead them to bring a product to market that rivals the largest corporations. Teachers lead us by spotting talents and inspiring growth.
Those who define greatness only by what they know and do show the weakness in their logic.
Thanks, Kate. I appreciate you adding your comment, and I like the examples you use!! Nicely done!
It amazes me that people spend more time defining who’s “not” something vs. encouraging folks to become who they could be.
If “leaders” are only a small layer of organizations, then we’re in for a world of turmoil. Too often we seem to idolize people at the top with the assumption that because of position – they are effective leaders.
Some time they are and some time they’re not. We are too consumed with status and not with character. Ironic though that we revel when someone’s character is compromised. Shouldn’t that tell us what we all truly want to focus on and see in our leaders?
Erin – you are on the right track and shouldn’t be compelled to sway from that. It is joyous to see that you see great things in your kids and in people in general.
People need to remember that “leadership” is a fact that we need to foster and develop in all people because they all have value. We would be such a better society and business community if we quit labeling and filtering certain people into strata.
Lead on my friend !!
Steve, thanks so much for your encouragement! I, too, agree that there can be bad leaders at the top, just as much as there could be great leaders not even close to the top.
To the point of so many comments here, I don’t think someone should get a position without skills, ability or at least potential. Those things, though, can be found in many places and in no way should someone be disqualified because they don’t have people reporting to them. They can, indeed, lead in other ways!
Loved the blog post Erin. A very good conversation around this topic of leadership and “miles logged at the helm”. I’m with Wally in some respect of understanding the position of this particular Green Beret…which is nothing to say of agreeing with his perspective.
I have found that often times people who have gone through a myriad of challenges in their development to becoming a leader, it can be common to react towards those who may not have had to make a journey of equal or similar difficulty with a bit of contempt. It’s almost as if someone who hasn’t been through the fire, as it were, isn’t able to make the grade. There can be a sense of the difficult journey being somehow diluted or unnecessary. Because one person learned lessons from those challenges doesn’t mean that is the only way to learn certain lessons…it just happened to be their journey.
I would venture to say that some of this contempt comes from a perspective that everyone’s journey has to look the same to arrive in the same destination…many roads lead to Rome.
There are CEOs who have an MBA and there are CEOs who have little to no college and are “self made”, so to speak. Each are equally effective in what they do. I think this to be a slippery slope…one in which we can begin to draw lines that limit emerging leaders and make leadership an elitist club. That’s been done already and I personally am not interested in seeing it return.
William, I love your perspective and the warmth that radiates from it!! I certainly agree with the “many roads” philosophy. Indeed, that was a major part of what I was trying to express – although you have captured it here much more eloquently!
Thank you for saying so eloquently what so many wish to express. As for your green beret friend, I suppose he’s no more qualified to guide others on the principals of character based leadership than you are qualified to lead a platoon into combat (I assume!). Leadership is abstract and relative, it takes many forms, and even a thought leader is a leader still.
A few years ago, I came up with this thought on what makes a leader:
“Standing at the front of the line does not make one a leader. Leadership must be, to some degree, the art of dissent. Only by challenging the conventional and approved, and convincing others to do the same, can one truly be deemed a leader. to merely be the first to get in line and have others walk behind you, in a direction determined by someone else, is not the act of leading. It is, rather, an indication that one has achieved nothing more than being the first to follow.”
Consider an orchestra conductor: Does the conductor lead the orchestra, or follow the music?
Thanks for your comment, David. I thought the question you propose at the end is a good on that really makes you think!! I also appreciate your definition of leadership. Thanks for adding so much to the conversation!
Great post Erin! I certainly adore your spirit and respect your work. Your brief statements say it all, “Always do what’s right. It does make you a leader. At least that’s what I believe.” I believe it too! Now moving on to Wally’s great point, “For me, you are a leader if you have followers. Everything else is commentary.” I agree with that too, and here’s the connection. I think there is a very strong positive correlation between doing what’s right consistently and long enough, and ending up with followers. We are leaders at heart before we are leading in reality. I think it’s a causal relationship. I recall being shocked with a “meritorious promotion” to PFC out of Parris Island (Semper Fi Wally) simply because the drill instructors noted that I did the right thing by consistently helping and lifting up my fellow “boots” when they struggled. That “stripe” didn’t make me a leader as I moved on to bigger and better things. It was a symbol that I was already a leader at heart, and it awarded me some followers. That “stripe” was a small reward that was simply a symbol of a huge lesson for my life. Do the right thing just because and likely, as in my case, the followers will come.
Thomas, thanks for your contribution here! I’m just cattching up and responding in order. I’m smiling as I believe an earlier response I made to Wally is similar in tone to what you’re saying.
You bring up a great point, too, which I appreciate. I should have taken my blog post one step further. By doing the right thing, you typically will get “followers.” And then, indeed, you have become a leader.
Thanks for a thoughtful post, Erin. I’m going to respond to two separate issues.
First, I have to say that I share the Green Beret’s frustration. I’ve been a leader in the Marines, in a large corporation and a non-profit, and in my own company. Often I hear the advice that’s offered by self-proclaimed experts and I think: “Where do you come up with this stuff? Have you ever actually tried what you’re recommending?”
I know that people who’ve never been in a leadership position can give good advice to leaders. James MacGregor Burns, the author of the seminal work, Leadership introduced the concept of “transformational leadership” didn’t lead anyone. Neither has John Keegan, senior lecturer at the British military academy, Sandhurst. Peter Drucker didn’t work in a leadership position, either.
Even knowing that, I can still feel that visceral, “what-do-you-know” reaction.
With that said, let me move on to something more substantive. You seem to sum up your position as follows:
“Always do what’s right. It does make you a leader. At least that’s what I believe.”
For me, you are a leader if you have followers. Everything else is commentary.
I like what you say about taking a moral stand. It may show strong character, but it’s not leadership unless someone follows.
I applaud the discussion of what makes good character. I think taking a moral stand in the face of popular opinion is something we should encourage. But I don’t think either one of those things is necessarily leadership.
Hi, Wally. Thanks for stopping by and adding to the conversation!
I’d like to offer a question in response to some of your logic. What about someone like Rosa Parks. She’s a historical icon, because she took a stance. And because she took a stance to do what was right (even though it was unheard of and unprecedented) she led to a significant change in history.
I’m certainly not suggesting that all you have to do is what’s right and good and that makes you a leader. There’s more to it than that. BUT – when you choose to always do the right thing, I do believe in our world, you come against opposition. I also think that, often times, that earns you what you would call “followers.”
Frankly, I’m not a fan of the word “follower” either. If we’re all in the boat together, it’s more of a team approach with a leader. The term “follower” may suggest to some that the follower isn’t thinking for him or herself, when in fact, they may simply be in agreement on an issue.
Let’s keep the dialogue going! This kind of discussion is healthy, I believe, adn helps us all learn and grow!
I believe we all have the “potential” to lead. I also believe that just because we all have that potential does nto mean we will take it to the next level not will we be the best or worst leaders. The sad and happy part about leadership is that there is no one definition. No one way. No definitive approach. It always depends on the environment, circumstances, resources, tools and abilities that we are given or made with.
Remember… we all have the potential. And not one of us has ever reached it. But we can get closer!
Hi, Ben. I agree, potential is a key factor. It’s what we DO with that potential that makes a difference. I do think that people can transform that potential into greatness without a CEO title, though. To your point, leadership can look different on different people. In the end, that too, is a point I often try to make. I think we can encourage leadership in everyone, and we don’t all have to follow the exact same path to get there (nor does “there” have to be the same!)
Like Wally’s comments above, I too have experienced much frustration over the years with people who want to be leaders, try to be leaders, but are sadly not leaders. Being a former leader in the military, I completely understand what the person commenting was trying to say, even though it may not have been expressed well. There are simply too many people operating in positions where they have no business operating.
In the corporate world I have had to clean-up many a mess created by well intentioned, but completely inexperienced people who were trying to do the right things – they just didn’t know what the right things were.
As Wally indicated, a good moral compass is the best tool that a leader can possess, but void of experience, discernment, savvy, insight, and a whole host of other qualities the moral compass alone can only insure that said leader attempts to do the right thing based upon their definition, but it won’t necessarily keep them from wandering off course.
All of this said, I knew some people in the military who were failed leaders as well. Rank, title, position, etc., are also not the basis to judge someone’s ability as a leader. As Wally said, you cannot be a leader without followers. You might be a legend in your own mind, but that doesn’t necessarily make you a leader.
Lastly, with regard to the leader that is Erin Schreyer…You may not have served in the military, but you are certainly an accomplished leader. Everything I have observed of you tells me that you have both the experience, moral character, and proven track record of accomplishments that point to no other conclusion than that of true leader.
To those attempting to lead from where they are…they should keep trying, but should also not confuse effort with capability.
Mike, thanks for adding to the discussion! I totally agree with what you’re saying. I, too, have witnessed (and been negatively affected) by people who were in positions that they simply couldn’t handle.
Indeed, experience and skill are critical components of leadership too!! I couldn’t agree more!
That said, I think there are some exceptionally creative, talented and smart people that are also leaders and may not ever even have the desire to be a CEO or military leader. I still think they can be a leader, though, and have a tremendous impact from a mid or even lower-level position.
Knowing you, I’m going to guess that you wouldn’t disagree with the above point (although feel free to, if I’m wrong.) I don’t think that age, title or direct reports has anything to do with leadership. I do agree that experience, knowledge and skill are needed to be successful. These can certainly be gained (and shared) without direct reports, though!!!
Great post Erin! I agree with you. Leadership has a beginning and we all start somewhere. Our leadership paths may take us in different directions: parenthood, CEO, Green Beret, Manager, Conductor, Nurse etc…. For me, it started when I realized I wasn’t a leader. I had a title, but nobody followed. That day I turned towards servant leadership and began developing the heart of a leader.
Laurinda, thanks so much for so openly sharing your story!! How beautiful! Keep your journey going, my friend!!
I agree whole heatedly. Title doesn’t make you a leader nor does position. Those things help and are often indicators of someone’s leadership effectiveness but those traits alone don’t define a leader. There are plenty of people I know who have never held a previous position of leadership who help extremely dynamic leadership traits and as soon as they stepped into a traditional leadership role they excelled and blew past all others who questioned their previous “lack” of actual leading.
Leadership comes in many forms. Some are simply born with the gift. All of us can better ourselves at it.
If leadership is influence then regardless of who we are or what we do, we are leaders in some way, shape or form. How I lead a church small group or a kids baseball team can impact generations to come in ways far beyond what I can see today. It’s not just about having employees.
Daniel – thanks for your contribution. You hit right to the heart of what I was trying to say – “it’s not just about having employees.” And, I totally agree that your impact in a small group or as a coach has significant impact. With more people building into our younger generation, it can be tranformational for them and also for everyone’s future!! Bravo!
Thank you for this important message. It reminded me that 1) As many other commenters have said, leadership is a broader and more complex concept than we often remember it to be, and 2) While in some situations, leadership does require the leader to command, direct, and execute, the true spirit of leadership can be expressed in many ways every day, even through the smallest acts. That is where the richness of character-based leadership can come through.
Lori, thanks for stopping by and adding some encouraging words and thoughts! I’m thrilled that it helped you (and hopefully others too) to stop, if even for a second, and consider what leadership is. That’s the real value of having this discussion!!
Thanks for your work and passion. I’m going to lay out a few assumptions that I have and give you the opportunity to correct me where you think I am wrong.
I’ve taken character based leadership to be leadership founded in the good character of the leader. On the other hand, I haven’t assumed that everyone with good character can lead an organization. However, I believe most people can be taught how to lead.
If you define a leader as someone who has followers everyone leads to some degree or another. Those with poor character lead. For example, the rebellious 6th grader may gather a small crowd of weak-minded crowd-followers vulnerable to peer pressure.
I think it makes sense to say that enduring, effective leaders usually have good character.
I’m laying my ignorance out here for your review. I’m not sure I understand the expression “character-based” leadership in the way you would define it. I’m willing to listen and learn.
Dan, absolutely, I agree that *just* because you have good character, it doesn’t make you a leader. You must have skills, experience, knowledge, ability. That said, it doesn’t require that you have people reporting to you, either.
To your point, people with bad character can have followers as well. Indeed, they’re leaders – but not great ones.
Most certainly, you’re not ignorant, Dan! I appreciate that you asked great questions to encourage more conversation and clarification! Thanks for doing that!
Yes, I agree. As a teacher my job is to lead everyday… and when you are teaching writing, literature, and history to urban, South American immigrants you need to QUICKLY refine and improve your leadership style! Being European myself, I found that they won’t always listen to me as I am an outsider.
As you said in your blog, “I believe that leaders are everywhere, not just at the top of an organization.” Thus, to help gain Buy-In for the class I promote my best students to be leaders of other students. I have a detailed example in my blog of using Lieutenants and Captains to let the students teach/guide/lead students. I just facilitate.
If I couldn’t delegate some of my leadership responsibilities I would have been dead from overwork long ago. Thanks for the food for thought!
David, thanks for adding your perspective and sharing your story! Sounds like you’re doing a great job of engaging others!! Nicely done!
Erin, good post. I’m not implying that this is the case here – I don’t think it is – but there are times when we are too glib about leadership and it frustrates people. Here are some thoughts:
We are all born to lead but not everyone leads – not even themselves.
We sometime confuse competency and leadership. They are not the same. Competency determines where a leader can serve. Leadership is a transferable mindset, competency is not. We can’t lead in every situation. However, a good leader should have enough self-knowledge to know when they don’t have the competency and make room for others.
Leadership is about making the right choices in response to changing circumstances. There are many ways to do this and we all come from differing perspectives.
Some leadership is loud and visible and some is quiet and understated. Both are just as powerful. The latter is often more effective and lasting. It’s also important to remember that leadership and followership are not polar opposites. They are both part of how we accomplish things in groups. Followership is not the lack of leadership; it is a part of leadership and a leader’s mindset. A good leader knows when to follow.
Learning to lead from where you are is what LeadershipNow is all about. Thanks Erin.
Lead From Where You Are
Michael, thanks for adding so many great observations and comments!! I love that you are able to provide so many examples of how leadership can be different. I also agree that leadership and competency are two different things; I equally value the importance of followership as part of leadership!! Excellent, Michael!! Thanks for adding so much!
I think some people confuse power-wielding with leadership. You hit it on the head – it’s knowing where you ought to go, and having the guts to go there regardless of whether you’re alone or not. And if you do that, you won’t be alone for long.
Hi, Ben! I completely agree – “if you do that, you won’t be alone for long!” Sometimes it just takes one person….and that, I believe, is a leader!! Thanks so much for stopping by and commenting!!
I have made no secret of the fact that I too am a former military person. I spent nearly 10 years in the USMC as an enlisted man, working my way from Private to Gunnery Sergeant. Throughout my tour I had the opportunity to be in many positions of leadership, but it was not until I left the Corps and became a manager in civilian life that I truly understood what it meant to be a leader.
There is no question that the military has a very strong leadership model that is an integral part of achieving success in their missions. That being said, the military leader is also supported by a strict hierarchical structure backed by a very rigid legal standard, the Uniform Code of Military Justice. I know for a fact that there are many “leaders” in the military environment who would find it very difficult to lead in environments where following a leader’s wishes is voluntary.
When I first left the Marines I would have been the first to tell you what a pleasure it would be for you if I were to be your manager. I was without doubt the best that ever was. And in a military environment I believe to this day that I most likely was one of the best. In the non-military environment, however, there is no place for such arrogance.
It took me several years to unlearn much of what I thought was good leadership in order for me to have a successful career in management. I am very proud that I served our Country and I am very grateful for the things that I learned while a Marine, all that being said, there is much more to being a leader than what is generally learned in any one environment. It takes a breadth of experience, an open mind, and an open heart to be a truly effective leader.
Anyone can be a leader. Some of the most effective leaders I have known had no title and no authority, and yet their influence and guidance was gratefully accepted by their followers.
I have learned many things during my career as an executive and one of those is that it is vital to accept and respect the contributions and experiences of others. We can not nor should we all be military leaders. We can not nor should we all be C-level executives. But we can and should be leaders within the domain of our individual abilities.
I will get off my soapbox now and go clean the break area, my little contribution to the team.
Gordon, thanks so much for your wonderful response. I have to admit, it brought tears to my eyes. Thank you for sharing so authentically. I deeply respect your experiences and insights, and I believe it adds much to the conversation.
Erin ~ The word “leadership” comes to mind when someone gets feedback (that is not particularly graciously expressed) and chooses to stand back, seek to understand it, share it with others and make something happen because of it.
I think you have done all of these things here. Now, so many more of us are thinking about what makes a leader beyond our current understanding of it.
To me, there are very few, if any, genuine leadership “gurus”. We are all students. Our contributions to the work of leadership vary and come from a variety of perspectives. When presented authentically, from our own experiences and with the intent to deepen understanding and improve practice, everything has value.
Thank you for your willingness to put something forward that could have more easily been ignored.
Gwyn, thanks so much for participating in the conversation. I’m just so thrilled that it’s igniting something for the very reasons you state above.
Sometimes I think we come up against a transition that is currently taking place in the definition of the word “leader.” I believe it traditionally meant that you had followers. But a core principle of leadership in this group is that everyone should have one follower, yourself. Self-leadership is our equivalent of a “moral compass.” If you don’t model the behavior you want to see, you’ll never get it from anyone else, and rightfully so.
Second, we have families, friends, homeowner’s associations, churches, and other volunteer associations. The number increases every year. We’re becoming a free agent culture. As a free agent, if you don’t want to listen to me or Erin or anyone else say what they think about leadership, don’t. We won’t mind. We’re just trying to help those who want it. We’re not competing, just participating. Our goal is to make a positive difference now, without having to go back to school or purchase something or disqualify ourselves because we didn’t do something the way someone else did. We are going to bring our best to make a positive difference. If it doesn’t do that for you, sorry.
However, judging by the discussion, it is making a positive difference in the lives of a bunch of other folks. Thanks for the great post Erin.
Thanks Erin for ultimately choosing to write this post.
I am tending toward what Mike stated, “…a core principle of leadership in this group is that everyone should have one follower, yourself.”
I think this is a conversation that we need to keep having.
Mary, I totally agree. It’s a great conversation – one that makes us all stop and consider what leadership is, and how does it look on me, personally? That, alone, is worth any effort that went into this. Only in the looking at oursleves and thinking at a deeper level can any change begin to take place.
Your green beret friend makes kind of a moot point (but most military folks think you’re not a leader unless you’ve been in the military). It’s kind of like saying Bob Stoops isn’t a football coach because he can’t play football.
Hi, David. I’m careful not to disparage my Green Beret friend. In fact, Im certain he is a leader in his own right. I have a deep respect for military personnel, having come from a long line of servicemen.
That said, I also agree with your coach comment, and I also feel confident that my “friend” could have approached this whole topic in a much better way – one that seeks to understand, versus one that seeks to demean and disparage (although, I do have experience and leadership that may surprise him!)
A core component of great leadership lies in the foundation of your intent as a leader. Is it to build others or to elevate yourself? The answer to that question says a lot about the leader.
Agreed. And I do have a deep respect for military leaders. But I often get into debates with them about how different leadership OUTSIDE a military setting in. Within the military, your followers are assigned to you and have signed their life away (for their time of duty) to the military. In the civilian world, everyone is essentially a volunteer…no matter how well paud.
Leaders are those that inspire others to improve themselves or to try harder to succeed. Yes there are leaders at all levels of a company and most are not in power positions.
The Green Beret was not taught to be a leader but trained in one particular aspect of leadership. You must understand that this is not necessarily a bad thing as for them it means the safety of the team and the lives of the team members. I respect that and honor that being a veteran.
However I do not think that type of leadership equates into the business world very well as the members of the business have not been trained in that type of regimented system.
In business your type of leadership will take companies farther in todays world.
As leaders we must seek to understand every aspect of leadership and to understand the roots and basis of each type.
There is no right or wrong here just a difference!
Please keep up the good work. As a leader we learn and move on.
Joseph, thanks so much for offering your perspective. I agree, it’s just a difference in leadership, and I completely understand the necessity of military leadership. It does save lives – I respect that deeply.
I do think that if we’re not afraid to care, it can make a difference. We all need more of that in our lives. Even at work. Perhaps, especially at work.
Wow, this really is such an interesting discussion because there are so many facets to leadership. I agree with all of the previous comments and have to say that I am on the side of personal leadership and influence.
For me, I embrace John Maxwell’s idea that “Leadership is influence”. As a coach I influence from behind the scenes, and I may not be the leader out in front, but I am an indirect leader. For example, if I influence a leader who leads hundreds, then I haven’t I indirectly lead them?
The ability to influence leaders is something I take seriously because I realize the far-reaching impact of my influence. The ability to lead just one person could change the course of history depending on the role of that one person.
Terrific way to turn a negative into a positive Erin!
Hi Bridget! Thanks for joining in. I also agree that influence is a powerful thing, and like Maxwell, I think that is leadership. As many earlier comments have stated, leadership requires followers. If you influence someone, aren’t they, in some way, following? Indeed, Bridget – you are a leader!
Thanks for being the catalyst for such a fascinating discussion which just confirms how difficult defining leadership can be. Sure there are behaviors that help us but even that is situational. Leadership can transitory and fleeting and like art, it is really in the eye of the beholder (follower).
On the Weekly Leader podcast, Pam and I try to avoid using the word “leader” because it so often identified with authority. (BTW, trying to avoid the word is nearly impossible and we fail all the time.) Our preference is to frame the discussion around the exercise or practice of leadership which is something that can be done by any one at any level in an organization, community, team or system.
Thanks again for leading this great discussion.
Peter, thanks for jumping in! I agree that many traditionally use the word leader in conjunction with authority. I also agree that leadership can be demonstrated by anyone at any level. Thus, indeed, it makes them a leader.
I enjoy attempting to “push the envelope” by asserting that because we can all demonstrate leadership, we can all be called leaders. Of course, some people’s leadership responsibilities are far greater and impactful than others. That said, at the end of the day, we all have the ability to influence others, and we can take responsibility to make that the best influence we’re personally able to bring.
This is a great discussion, it is really interesting to think of what makes a leader, it is amazing how other respected leadership practitioners are commenting on the post.
Let me add this, i think leadership is what lies behind world moving round!
Erin, I would say if all leaders define leadership as you do, and teach their children the lesson you did,
“Always do what’s right. It does make you a leader. At least, that’s what I believe.”
Maybe we would be living in a different world, many times we come across really competent leaders who make things accomplished in almost impossible circumstances, but are they doing the right!?
We would argue what the right thing is in a given situation, we may say it depends on what we are trying to achieve … but can we always agree on what is the right thing to achieve!?
Seeing leadership in your own children is adorable, so much respectful… these young creatures are the gifted spirits that haven’t been trained to scope and ignore … They know what the right thing in their own way … growing them up is a complex mission … we want them to understand the world to make things happen, but we need them to remain true to what is right!!
I’m grateful to read this distinguished discussion, i’m sorry if i drifted far a little.
Huda, I love that you’re thinking about how things might be different! That’s exactly what I hope to get people thinking about!! If we adpoted a different philosophy about leadership, how we define it, how we model it, etc…how could things be different? If it’s a brighter picture, would it be worth the effort?
For me personally, I think so. And I’m happy to help launch the revolution!
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I loved this discussion because it opens up the exact conversation that is necessary in this ever-changing world. Whenever I think about leadership I always return to those values we discussed so often at Leaderpalooza… compassion, ability, integrity and our heartfelt belief that focusing on gaining followers is a surefire way of compromising our principles. Instead we focus on leading ourselves. I think our world is starved for integrity. People know and follow it when they see it.
As for our Green Beret friend, he is undoubtably a leader of his own people and in my mind is likely able and honorable. Perhaps it is that missing 3rd component that we are looking for, the compassion. I think I would ask him, is what he has done the best way to lead Erin? It did result in this great discussion, and so perhaps he would think that is a success, but I attribute this discussion more to your response Erin, than his.
In the end, it is your willingness to lead yourself Erin, to risk, to open your mind, to act with integrity here and always, to use your strengths, and to offer your hand to me and anyone willing to join you than makes you a leader. I for one will follow you, Erin.
Deb, you are an amazing leader. As mentioned earlier, teachers are some of the best leaders, and their impact is incredibly significant!! I admire you! And -I’m happy to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with you! No following needed here. I desire to walk by your side and even to further support you by standing behind you when needed!!
Thanks so much for your contribution to this discussion.
While I think this is a great discussion, I also believe the issue is being over-complicated. The gentleman who wrote you is insecure (arrogance and/or pride is always the result of insecurity), that insecurity has bred jealousy…and his jealousy resulted in demeaning behavior. His tweet says a lot about him, and your response says a lot about you. I don’t know either of you personally, but Erin, I know who I’d rather be led by.
Love your spirit, your humility, your selflessness, and your drive. Keep up the great work!
Hi, Doug. I appreciate your vote of support. I do want to be cautious to make assumptions about my “friend.” I don’t know him, and I’m still hopeful somewhere in the back of my mind that he simply could have chosen better words to convey his sentiment.
This discussion has been very healthy, I believe, and it’s bringing the topic of leadership top-of-mind for many people. This is a good thing, no matter what their personal stance is on the issue. We need to be considering what it is and what it looks like for us more often.
Hopefully, most of us can agree that there’s no one particular road to being a leader. It’s personal, and it needs to be authentic for everyone.
I DO think the Green Beret author is a leader. What I hope is possible is that he can also open his mind to believe that others who did not follow his same path can also be leaders too!
I could write a whole new blog post on the value of diversity in leadership, in fact. It’s a beneficial approach for companies that has positive effects on both their employees and customers. But, I’ll leave that for another time…
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HOLY MOLY, Erin, you’ve sparked a wonderful discussion. I’ve learned a lot from the exceptional cast of leaders who have chimed in on this topic.
I’d like to throw out an off-the-wall thought that dovetails with yours and Wally’s references to Ms Parks, Drucker, and others.
We live in an attention-starved world where information hyper-clutter is the norm. As such, people are hungry for experiences and something they can talk about and ‘Believe’ in. When they find that ‘something’ (a compelling idea) they rally behind it whether the author of the idea wanted it or not. Great ideas are the currency of great leaders and the ideas that spread,… WIN. A leader’s ideas are embodied in their words and/or their actions. They represent something (idea) that is compelling to others.
Where we get a little jaded is when we hear people espouse leadship dogma without the experience to back it up. I definitely find myself leaning in this direction from time to time. Yet, I must confess that I closely follow many thought ‘Leaders’ who have never led a team. In my mind they are still leaders because their ideas represent something I believe in and, by default, I am one of their followers! The metric, then, is the validity of the idea.
Using this premise, leadership doesn’t necessarily require formal heirarchy. Rather, it requires an passion for an idea that resonates with others. This type of leadership fills a vacuum in many walks of life beyond formal command structures.
A single bias toward command-structure leadership obviates those leadership instances where ordinary folks lead a revolution, great thinkers shift our mental constructs or a child takes a stand for what ‘Right looks like’. In each of these cases the ‘Idea’ is the catalyst for substantive change and followers line up in mass.
I doubt if Ghandi, Joan of Arc or a cast of other leaders spent much time honing their leadershipship skills or reviewing their organizational charts 🙂
… Just a thought
Mark, EXCELLENT insights you’ve added here, and I couldn’t agree more! Indeed, there is great leadership that comes from a great idea – one that is substantiated, provides solid vision and can get others rallied with passion. I think you’ve really hit on something here, and it’s a slightly different way of looking at it. I LOVE it!! And, by the way, I love to fill a vacuum!!! There’s nothing more exciting than closing gaps!!
So glad you wrote this response, Mark. As I’m reading through all of these comments (late to the party!), they were the thoughts resonating in my head.
People voluntarily rally around one of three things, personalities, actions or thoughts. Regardless of what the rallying point is, the effect is the same. Those who most effectively reflect, articulate or represent whatever people are rallying around become de facto leaders, whether they were intending to or not.
Rosa Parks wasn’t seeking to change the course of history. She took a stand against indignity. She wasn’t intending to become a leader, but was thrust into that position by the people who valued her action.
You lead as a professional and you lead as a mother. There are so many different types of leaders and various ways to lead. It always astonishes me when people don’t see parents or teachers as leaders.
Great response post.
Right on, Kristen!!! Let’s value the impact that we all bring!!
Erin – thanks for inviting me to share.
I thought of several points I could make as I read your post. All of them have been shared by others. I believe a great leader understands when a message has been delivered – so I won’t add those thoughts!
I will say how much I appreciate your approach of learning lessons (including leadership ones) from your children. I have long tried to do that and have written about some of those lessons. they are powerful when we take the time to find them.
Some of our greatest wisdom comes from translating a lesson from one part of our to others – so while the leadership of our children is necessarily different in context, the lessons, like ripe fruit, remain for the picking.
I also thank you for the great example of nurturing this wonderful dialogue – a display of leadership in itself.
Kevin, your kind thoughts and encouragement are so appreciated!! Thanks for building in to me and others!
What a wonderful conversation! My father is a retired military officer and I have two brothers deploying for Iraq in the next month (one for the second time).
I appreciate the amazing contributions that have been made already, and I respectfully offer the following thoughts:
1. Leadership is evolving and growing. As science, research, experience, and time go on, we become smarter and more reflective on the subject. The past definitions may no longer fulfill a more humanistic viewpoint. Indeed, even the leadership training in the military has evolved as new discoveries are made.
2. Leadership is not held by a title. History books are full of people that had titles, but were terrible leaders. The opposite is also true (examples like Eric Liddell and Harriet Tubman in John C. Maxwell’s book “The Right to Lead” both come to mind).
3. Leadership is the ability to influence & create communities. Many people have a desire to do the right thing, but they are afraid of doing it on their own. However, we often contribute when others stick their neck out to set a framework for us to follow (think Mike Henry Sr. and the Lead Change group — more specifically, this conversation).
4. Leadership is OTHER focused. As you pointed out Erin: “A core component of great leadership lies in the foundation of your intent as a leader. Is it to build others or to elevate yourself? The answer to that question says a lot about the leader.” In my opinion, great leaders succeed BECAUSE they make those around them successful, and they aren’t afraid to recognize it.
5. Leadership is humble, and yes, vulnerable. Great leaders know that they are not perfect, and they willingly admit it. Showing their weaknesses simply helps others understand and relate to them. Such leaders don’t waste energy hiding their mistakes with blame or false accusations towards others. Indeed, they empathize and build others up in order to foster trust, creativity, innovation, and results.
Books I highly recommend on this subject:
“Love Leadership” by John Hope Bryant
“Aspire” by Kevin Hall
“The Leader Who Had No Title” by Robin Sharma
“You Don’t Need a Title to Be a Leader” by Mark Sanborn
“The Right to Lead” by John C. Maxwell
To conclude, I humbly submit that we need leaders from a diverse set of circumstances and backgrounds. I am grateful for leaders that didn’t wait for someone to give them a title or tell them they had enough experience before they started serving others . . . leaders like:
1. Barbara Fredrickson, professor and author of “Positivity”
2. Tony Hsieh, CEO of Zappos
3. Jeff Bezos, CEO of Amazon
4. Stephen R. Covey, originally a researcher that published his findings in the book “7 Habits”
and so many more . . .
This doesn’t dismiss the fact that there are fake gurus (some with titles way beyond their capability), and they are pervasive in every industry and place in life. However, REAL Leaders don’t need a title in order to do the right thing, they don’t do it for their own glory, and they don’t wait before they serve others. They just lead.
Max, thank you for your eloquent response – so beautifully said!! You provide such wonderful examples, and I also very much appreciate the book suggestions.
Keep up the great work you’re doing to encourage leaders to provide positive feedback. It’s such an essential part of being a great leader!
I was an exchange student (from Germany) in a very small town in South Georgia. The host family I stayed with went to church at least three times a week, and for the first time in my life, I had actually been exposed to religion (before that I wasn’t even sure why we celebrated Easter).
Anyway, I couldn’t understand why some of the people I met were ‘two-faced’. I met cheaters who gave talks about being happily married, and partiers who condemned cigarettes, alcohol and party-going.
It occurred to me: “They try to tell me how to become or be a better Christian, but quite frankly, they suck at it, too!” The ‘Green Beret’ inside of me was asking: “Why should I even listen to some of these folks?”
Matthew Polkinghorne wrote: “The human desire and need to find intimacy and be authentic are often thwarted by subconscious doings of the mind – behaviors expressed by an individual that are considered d: If someone gives me advice, they are sharing their knowledge with me. They are connecting with me from a place that is very real to them and they are inviting me to connect. I allow myself to be influenced. Influence, either way, starts with connection.
I find efforts “by those attempting to lead from where they are” (not to be confused with capabilities 😉 very valuable. These efforts can start a relationship. Also, there could be some sort of truth or realization in every piece of [crappy, untested] advice I get.
I want to jump back into this discussion to echo your kudos to David Kasprzak’ question — “Consider an orchestra conductor: Does the conductor lead the orchestra, or follow the music?”
A great orchestra conductor actually does both. S/he takes the composer’s intent, adds insight to making the music come alive and leads the orchestra with inspiration to contribute their greatness — all for a (hopefully) a unique and superb rendition of the music.
The art of leadership lies in combining insight and inspiration to tap the team’s greatness.
Erin, Leadership to me is in allignment with your description. When someone is true to their heart and to their beliefs and lives from this core of inner strength, that person is a leader. If more people would strive to put good into the world, in whatever degree their life takes them each day, what a better world we all would have!
Thanks, Angie! I appreciate your encouragement!!
Great discussion. And as always, everybody’s contribution and diversity of thought enriches the topic. Just want to add a small idea to the thoughts about “followers” making you a leader. Some times it is not until years later that you learn you had influenced “followers” from stands you took, ideas you shared, or things you did. Therefore, I think it is vital to behave as a leader, even when at moments it might seem you do not have a following, because you might have more of a following than you think.
Thanks for sparking such a conversation!
Dr. Ada, thanks for jumping into the conversation. You make such a great point here! Indeed, we may have followers without realizing it! Even more reason to always do what’s right, be authentic and lead from who you are!! You never know who you impact!!
Wow, I’m glad that I happened upon this post and most intriguing conversation this afternoon. I’m actually a bit sorry for the Green Beret. I’m sure that he has led effectively in the past and I trust that his followers did well by him. He seems now, though, to have boxed himself into an old paradigm of leadership — one that doesn’t fit across the board today. I wonderful if he’ll have the flexibility, “grow-ability” and courage to get out, if alternative options are necessary. I wonder if “his” people will be able and willing to follow him.
What a fascinating discussion this would be in person. Even more fascinating would be watching it play out in real life.
Thanks for your comment, Anne. I don’t know my Green Beret friend personally, so I can’t make any assumptions with confidence. I was somewhat surprised by his questioning, given his role as a leadership consultant and team builder.
That said, I’m sure he has done some amazing things throughout his career. He may have even directly saved lives, which I for certain cannot say….but I do hope this discussion could possibly allow him and others to open their minds to the possibility of valuing the contributions that we can all make.
It’s all been said about leadership in these comments, so I won’t repeat. I agree that we can all be leaders and that therefore we all have a responsibility to learn the skills required to be GREAT leaders.
Just wanted to say thank you for setting such an outstanding example of character and leadership. Your grace and style are admirable!
Erin – You are absolutely and always the Lady. Whether he considers you a leader or not, your critic might take lessons from you.
You bless me with your encouragement! Thank you for your support and for joining the conversation!
Anne, you are too kind!! Thanks so much for dropping by with your kind encouragement!
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I work with 12 premises in guiding leaders development. It is understood that a person must stand accountable for own development and not be diverted by external influence. Otherwise their “development” is not sustainable and will fall short of achieving potential.
Foremost premise: “The aim of a person when leading is to be an influence in the lives of others.” In order to be a constructive influence a leader must make a conscious will based decision to take the lead in a particular situation. Ground for will is personal core values that we believe a person must portray authentically. Decision to lead is never made casually, always internally generated and not compormised by external influence.
Leader (and others) grow in character as consequence of struggle with temptation, threat, and adversity as they aim to hold true to core values. Character development is always the result of deep, values based testing.
Second and timely premise: “Leadership does not occur as the result of assignment, certification, or seniority.” Common and automatic reference to highly placed individuals, experts, politicians and media pundits as “leaders” when most are clueless about leading and tend to be “misleading.” These references have left the public in a cynical and doubtful position about leading which makes our task more challenging and much more urgent.
I smirked a little when I heard you describe the Green Beret’s comment.
My seven year old attends a very special school which is making a great impact on his (and our family’s) life. It’s the AB Combs Leadership magnet elementary school. http://combses.wcpss.net/ Here, his curriculum is steeped in a foundation of Covey’s Seven Habits, and is of the firm belief that these children (all of us, for that matter) lead in different ways, at different times each day. That we should celebrate our strengths and use them to better others and the world around us.
To witness the principal Muriel Summers and Vice Principal Michael Armstrong plus their administration in action is nothing short of inspiring. The real delight, though, are the children. These are some of the most well-behaved, respected, and polite children in any school that I’ve seen. The administration expects the children to display LEAD (Loyalty, Excellence, Achievement and Discipline) all day, every day at school. Administration walks the talk, and supports the children to stretch past the ‘standards’.
The children are centered on personal leadership and encouraged to be the best they can be and to MAKE mistakes, as from this comes true grace and knowledge. Here’s a direct quote from their site about the Leadership Model program:
“Each quarter of the school year, students identify and set their own personal academic goals. Using Baldrige criteria, data collection and data analysis practices, children track their progress and growth over the course of the school year. Students also learn social etiquette and develop communication and presentation skills through student-lead programming including a daily news broadcast, school-wide assemblies, community service projects, and an innovative Leader of the Week Program featuring local, state and national leaders.”
This program is highly supported by General Hugh Shelton and his Leadership Initiative program at NC State University, “Leading Organizations that Embrace Change”. The story of AB Combs begins that as new principal with a strategic choice of magnet focus, principal Muriel Summers (inspired by seeing Covey present live and in person) interviewed who she deemed to be the stakeholders for the school- not the parents, but local business professionals. Corporate and small business leaders told her that true leadership cannot be taught on the job, that it is core to a human’s fundamental understanding of morality, ethics, and trust. That the confidence that comes from understanding ones’ strengths and limitations makes for very effective teams, comprised of ‘leaders’, as well as ‘individual contributors’. The combination of leadership nurture should begin as soon as possible in life to ensure this. Combs went from a school that nearly lost funding to continue to, with the new Leadership focus, Magnet School of the Year in the USA within 2 years of the change! Companies like Cisco and Lego are great supporters of AB Combs and schools from all over the world work with Combs to benchmark from their standards. see: http://www.theleaderinme.org/books.html for Covey’s book which showcases Combs and Summers as the beginning of a movement!
Each one of these children is commended for their leadership each day and as far as I know not one of them has commanded a troop.
So, it is with gratitude that I support you putting this post up and revealing further to the world that leadership is multifaceted, and comes in different forms. We can find it in the tiniest actions in all of us, we can recognize it and encourage it at all ages. True leadership comes from being the best we can be, making mistakes, and learning from them to become strong and conscientious humans, wherever we end up as adults.
Kelly, thanks so much for posting your comment…and with such a wonderful school example!!! I just love what they are doing!!! I can’t wait to see what becomes of these children as they grow and continue on their leadership path. BRAVO!!
It’s a great article and of course we all have the ability to lead from where we are. We ALL have an inner leader which we have to use to get from the one end of life to the other. But not every body use their inner leader.
That said I also think that most leaders today believe that the solutions they have applied in the pas will sufice in the future. Unfortunately we are at a place in evolution where past experience will eradicate all of us if we continue. Yesterdays solutions applied to tomorrows promlems will be disastrous. The leaders of the future must act from heart and wholeness – simple as that!
We have to solve problems an a new way now. We have to forget everything we have learned about leadership, and instead be open, intuitive, present, aware and creative. We have to invent new solutions as we go. We are all leaders of our own lives.
It hit me as a hammer in the face that our leaders did not have the skills to predict this worldwide financial crisis we are in the middle of rigt now. Not even 2 days before it began rolling did the see anything. Now they are running around like chickens without heads pretending they know what to do about it while countries like Greece, Portugal and Spain are on the way to bankrupcy. Things happen and then they react… ooopppss!
We are all equally leaders. Except from those with 50 years of experience. They can’t lead anything in the future!
Very well said and very well put! I’ve gone through life feeling I’ve lived three hundred only to learn that life’s essence is in the simplicity of the heart of a child!
When I think: “What really makes me a leader”, a thought comes to mind: “The inner person”. Which leads me to a conclusion: I better work more on the inside than on the outside. Here is some self-coaching: Daniel needs to lead more from the inside out. I can get caught up in the trappings of the C-suite, and the smell of power which emanates from the Boardroom. So for me, this question has provoked me to action: work more on the inside, and let the outside take care of itself.
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The current Global Leadership Crisis exposed a lot, then with the call for Change- People of the world have extremely high expectations and demand such of their Global Leadership in the areas of Integrity with Words and Action Aligned consistently.
Leadership comes down still to whom we truly are, our personal journey, experiences that shape and mold us as we consistently improve… We drill and hammer ourselves into that Character if needed and live it permanently.
Then come questions like: What we stand/stood for when tested? How we deal with tough Leadership challenges PRACTICALLY. How do we affect other people around, like our teams, peers, and how many, …when providing purpose, direction and motivation to accomplish an individual task, a team and business mission, goals and dreams?
One can find out by asking basic questions, knowing and growing into their own unique Leadership style. I’d practice and constantly reflect, do soul searching within personal values, character, traits and then into words- A personal definition of Leadership as follows:
IFEANYI O ASONYE’S DEFINITION OF LEADERSHIP
Ifeanyi O. Asonye’s definition of Leadership is the “Inspiration of Individuals, Teams and Organizations to reach their Full Potentials, Individuals to live Fulfilling lives; Unifying and Motivating them to accomplish and/or exceed Personal and Organizational Goals and Dreams”.
I highly recommend a ‘Personal Definition Of Leadership’ for Everyone, and AnyOne.
May God Bless You, Your Personal Journey and Experiences in this Global Leadership space. God Bless all our Endeavors toward a Positive Change!
Ifeanyi O Asonye
Architect IT- Business Technology Solutions & Services
Feel free to connect as follows:
Great article! Leadership comes from anywhere in the organization – not solely from the leadership ranks. Leaders are problem solvers, decision makers, team builders, effective communicators and change agents.
Wow, I’m so blessed to hear your wonderful words about what leadership really requires. I believe as you, that it doesn’t matter the position a person holds, it’s their willingness to stand out from the crowd and do what’s right.
I’m a manager of 10 employees in a government agency. I can’t tell you just how valuable, to me, the employees are that take on challenges running. They don’t hold a leadership position, they are front-line, customer facing employees who see an opportunity to overcome obstacles and meet the challenge every time. They are my inspiration to continue to develop my own leadership skills.
I haven’t read your blog, just this posting, but I don’t have to read the blog. I fully relate to finding leadership anecdotes watching children. I raised seven myself. We should probably take the time to contemplate their interactions more often.
How easy it has become for us to publicly humiliate one another. As a leader, it is my responsibility to read, take what I need and leave the rest. If I don’t relate to what I read – that is not the author’s fault, and it should never be my place to discount someone else’s experience. Most times I learn a different perspective. Bless you for speaking about a tough subject.