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Part 1: What is my definition of leadership?

Leadership can take many forms and manifest itself in several different ways, but there are a few core concepts that it boils down to:

Leadership is when a person or group of people take initiative, whether they choose to or have it thrust upon them, to inspire followers to work together to achieve a common goal. A great quote that I think effectively illustrates the concept of leadership is:

“Leadership is the art of getting someone else to do something you want done because he wants to do it.” – Dwight D. Eisenhower

The description of leadership as an art, to me, is very apt, because there is not any one scientifically proven RIGHT way to lead. It requires foresight, flexibility, understanding, observation skills, empathy, charisma, and a whole host of other qualities to be a good leader.

I think it’s important to note the difference between a good leader and a good person. It is all too possible to have great leadership skills and use them to guide followers in the wrong direction. Hitler is kind of the quintessential example of someone who used his great leadership skills to lead an entire nation full of people in the wrong direction, but listening to him speak is riveting even if you don’t speak the language, even if what he’s saying is abhorrent:

There are a couple of key points in my personal definition that I want to explain in greater detail:

1. For leadership to happen, there needs to be two distinct parties: leaders and followers.

Neither is inherently better than the other, but for leadership to occur, there needs to be a clear party that is taking the initiative to push the rest of the group in a certain direction. If everyone were working together harmoniously there would be no leaders or followers, but neither would leadership be occurring; it would simply be cooperation. The leader is often looked at as being more important than her followers, but as Don Grayson and Ryan Speckhart say in their essay “The Leader-Follower Relationship: Practitioner Observations,”  “it is the follower who often contributes directly to organizational success.” If there were no one to follow a leader’s initiative, the very ability for the leader to lead is immaterial.

2. Leaders must be able to inspire confidence in themselves and in the goal ahead. If the followers decide the leader is untrustworthy, they will quickly lose interest and even turn on the leader. An extreme example of this is the stabbing of Julius Caesar by his Senate on the Ides of March in 44 B.C. The Senate was unhappy with Caesar’s leadership, and so went to extreme measures to bring about change; this happens at a less violent scale when, for example, presidents are impeached or CEOs are fired. If the leader is unable to inspire confidence and convince her followers that she is a worthy leader, her leadership will quickly be revoked. As John C. Maxwell states, “People follow because they want to,” (2013). Even though this is only the second level on his hierarchy of why followers put their faith in a leader, it must be satisfied before the leader/follower relationship can be established on any deeper levels. Maxwell goes into depth on all levels of leadership in his talk, which I was unable to embed at the request of the owners of the content.

3. Leaders must be able to facilitate cooperation between their followers. If the team is not unified, it will be much more difficult for them to accomplish goals. The leader provides the common point to give guidance, delegate properly, and bring out the best in everyone she works with, and that includes helping them work with each other. Good followers are team players and communicate effectively (University of Missouri), but no team is entirely comprised of good followers — and even if it were, people make mistakes and there is bound to be conflict and miscommunication. It is a leader’s responsibility to keep such issues to a minimum and to work to rectify them when they do arise.

4. Last but not least: there must be a goal in sight. Whether it is tangible, like a new office space or house, or intangible, like an increase in efficiency, leaders must be able to keep the goal in sight and to keep their followers focused. It’s all too easy to get distracted by the day-to-day tasks that every job involves; it’s the leaders job to remind everyone of the big picture and to make sure every task and employee is being used to further the progress toward the goal. Every leader is motivated by the goal and needs to impart that motivation to her followers, whether it is for world domination or a 25% increase in profits in the third quarter. Without a clear purpose, any team will fall apart quickly, but it’s the leader’s job to ensure that doesn’t happen.

So, as you can see, my definition of leadership has four different but equally important parts to it: leaders and followers, confidence in the leader’s ability to lead, the leader’s ability to keep her followers focused and unified, and a goal for them all to work toward.

Part 2: My leadership, quantified

a. I am a leader

4, agree – I frequently find myself taking the lead on team projects and at work; I tend to take the initiative and make decisions, in both professional and social environments.

b. I see myself as a leader

4, agree – I have enough confidence in my own abilities to take responsibility, but if I see that someone I’m working with is more capable than I am who is willing to take the lead, I would defer to them.

c. If I had to describe myself to others, I would use the word “leader”

2, disagree – I feel like describing yourself as a leader comes off as pretentious and condescending; appointing yourself a “leader” kind of defeats the real meaning of the word. I feel like being a leader is something people decide about you rather than something you decide yourself.

d. I prefer being seen by others as a leader.

5, strongly agree – Maybe it’s part of the cultural stigma against followers and the fact that every college and employer looks for people who have exhibited “leadership skills,” but I would rather people saw me as someone capable and confident enough to take the lead and do a good job with it.

Part 3: What skills, knowledge, and/or abilities do you need to obtain to be a good leader?

Well, the first thing is that this question assumes that good leaders are made, not born, so that’s the assumption I’m going to be running with as I attempt to answer this question.

There are so many people and major news organizations that have written about this very subject (Forbes, Inc, and Harvard Business Review among them) I can narrow it down to the five traits that I think are most important to leaders:

1. Communication

Above all else, leaders must be able to communicate. Communication means “the process of understanding and sharing meaning” (McLean, 2015).

Good communication starts at the top, and the more everyone stays on the same page, the more smoothly everything will go. It keeps frustration to a minimum and maximizes efficiency, and is exponentially important as the group gets larger.

2. Critical Thinking

Whether you think of it as problem solving or critical thinking (the phrase itself is somewhat hard to define), finding solutions to major issues that come up in an efficient manner is an important skill in a leader. They should be able to think on their feet, remain open to all sources of information, and be able to connect relevant information and piece it together into a cohesive solution to any problem.

3. Confidence

Since part of being a leader is inspiring others to follow you, it is important for leaders to not only have confidence in themselves, but be able to show it in a way that others understand. Technical competence can be undermined by a lack of confidence, which makes leading others difficult (Stark 2014). Good leaders can also impart confidence onto other people and make their followers feel confident both in their leader and in themselves. Confidence can be a double-edged sword, however; it is easy to go overboard with self-confidence, which can lead to trouble.

4. Decision-making

This skill stems from confidence and critical thinking. A leader needs to be able to find the solution to a problem and cannot be indecisive about it, because that could come off to the followers as insecurity and might cause them to lose faith in the leader.

Everyone has a different decision-making process, but leaders should know their own and be able to implement it in any situation.

5. Emotional Intelligence

“Great leaders understand how to balance emotion with reason,” (Kase 2010). If a leader doesn’t understand her followers, she won’t be able to effectively motivate them to contribute toward the goal or manage any conflicts that arise.

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