Zig Ziglar once said that “If you aim for nothing you’ll hit it every time” and that is absolutely true for leadership: if you don’t know what good leadership is you’ll never be a good leader. It’s impossible to be a good leader without understanding the nature of leadership. Sure you may be able to persuade people to do things, but you’ll never be a truly effective leader without understanding what it means to lead well. Now some people may be born as naturally persuasive people, but long term success as a leader does not happen by accident.
So we are going to begin our journey of leadership development by studying leadership. Before you get too concerned that this will be an extensive study of obscure leadership theories and looking at studies that you don’t understand, don’t worry - we are going to begin by just making sure we all are on the same page regarding what it means to be a leader, a follower, and understanding leadership (just a reminder the curriculum will get progressively more practical).
Lesson 1: What is Leadership?
Defining Leaders, Followers, and Leadership
Let’s begin with some definitions. For each area (leaders, followers, and leadership) we will have three definitions: a textbook definition, our LeadWell definition (a little less technical) and a simple easy-to-remember definition.
Textbook definition: “Leaders are those whose roles in organizations include accountability for influencing others or establishing structure for others to follow, or those who are recognized for developing priorities for the organization. In most cases, leaders have formal role designations or titles” (Craig Runde and Tim Flanagan, “Becoming a conflict competent leader” p. 3)
That is our textbook definition, coming from Craig Runde and Tim Flanagan’s book “Becoming a Conflict Competent Leader” (the link to purchase the book is at the bottom of this page).This is a very technical definition, but we’re using it because it is so comprehensive and it’s good to have a very technical understanding of a subject right from the beginning.
Next we'll look at the LeadWell defintion of a leader, which differs a little from the textbook definition by being a little more simple but also incorporating some new ideas.
LeadWell definition: Leaders are people who inspire and motivate others to accomplish the leader’s goals. Leaders most often have formal positions of authority, but a person does not have to have formal position of authority to be a leader.
One important thing to note in this first two definitions is that being a leader is often accompanied by a formal title, but having a title is not required for being a leader. You can be a leader among your peers if you are recognized among your peers as the person who is setting the standard and direction, even if you don’t have a designated title.
Leaders are influencers. Leaders influence and motivate their followers to accomplish the goals of the leader. These goals should be for the benefit of the organization, but remember this is not just what good leaders do, but rather what a leader is. Bad people can be effective leaders, but being selfish will ultimately hamper the leaders ability to be effective in the long run.
Finally, we are going to look at the simple definition, which is designed to be easy to remember, but it is not at all comprehensive so there are limitations to the simple definitions.
Simple definition: A leader is someone who inspires others to do something.
That is one of the reasons it is important for a leader to be healthy - a leader influences the people in his or her organization towards a particular goal. Someone who is unhealthy can influence an entire group of people towards a shared sickness.
So to recap: a leader often has a title, but doesn’t require one, and a leader is an influencer of other people.
A leader is someone who inspires others to do something, but let’s also look at who is being led.
Textbook Definition: ”A follower shares in an influence relationship among leaders and other followers with the intent to support leaders who reflect their mutual purposes” (Rodger Adair, The Art of Followership, p. 139).
Now we often hear that being a follower is a bad thing, but the reality is there is not leadership without followership; life would just be people yelling at each other and no one actually doing anything. And the other reality of being a follower is that virtually every leader also has to be a follower at some level.
Using college sports as an example: team captains answer to coaches, coaches answer to athletic directors, athletic directors answer to school presidents, and so on. So being a good follower will help you be a better leader, and being a better leader will help you learn how to be a better follower.
Keep the textbook definition in mind as we look at our LeadWell definition:
LeadWell Definition: The people in the organization who support the leader by completing organizational goals as defined by leaders. The leader-follower relationship should be symbiotic and mutually beneficial.
Now that definition may not seem much more simple, so let’s break it down.
First off, as a leader you need to absolutely value your followers because you cannot succeed as a leader without your followers supporting you by doing what you ask of them. A good follower is critical to your success as a leader and you need to guide them towards what they need to be doing for the organization.
The second part of that definition is also vitally important for you to remember as a leader: the relationship between the leader and the follower needs to be mutually beneficial as a symbiotic relationship.
You may be unfamiliar with the term “symbiotic relationship” so let me give you a quick example from nature: In the ocean, sharks and remora fish live in a symbiotic relationship. The remora fish attaches itself with basically a suction cup like feature to the side of a shark, which provides great protection and easy travel for the remora fish. But the remora fish provides something for the shark too - the remora fish removes debris (like leftover pieces of fish) and parasites from the sharks body. This means that the remora fish gets protection and the shark gets to stay healthy. It is a mutually beneficial relationship that exists by both parties working together.
This is what it is like between a leader and a follower. A leader provides direction and inspiration, while the followers carry out the leader’s vision. As a leader you need to make sure that you are benefiting both your organization and your followers.
Let's look at the simple definition of a follower before we move on:
Simple Definition: Followers are the people who get stuff done in the organization.
This may sound trite, but it is the truth. A leader can tell people what to do, but if they don’t do it, it doesn’t get done.
The followers enable the organization to accomplish its goals. A leader cannot do everything (especially in larger organizations), so it is up to the followers to do the work needed for the organization to thrive.
So now that we have a basic understanding of the role of being a leader and a follower, let’s finish up by looking at the process of leadership.
Textbook definition: "Leadership is… A process whereby an individual influences a group of individuals to achieve a common goal” (Peter Northouse, “Leadership: Theory and Practice” p. 5).
This is the standard textbook definition of leadership that you will hear from basically every person who has formally studied leadership.
Leadership doesn’t happen at once, you can’t just tell your followers what to do once and be done forever. Great leaders remember that leadership is a process that takes continual maintenance and work.
So let’s re-read Northouse’s definition once again: Leadership is… “A process whereby an individual influences a group of individuals to achieve a common goal” (Peter Northouse, “Leadership: Theory and Practice” p. 5). This is a great technical definition, but it’s missing one key factor: relationships. So let's look at the LeadWell definition.
LeadWell Definition: Leadership is a relationship in which a leader influences his or followers to accomplish organizational goals.
A relationship of influence is my favorite way to think about leadership because leadership is more than just a process of leading others. There has to be a relationship between the leader and the “followers”. Like we talked about earlier, a leader needs to be invested into the relationship between his or herself and his or her followers.
Let's make it even more practical: as you begin this journey into leadership development, remember that it’s not just about you.
As you begin this process you will likely face the temptation to focus exclusively on yourself. After all, you are the one adding skills to your toolbox and it would be easy to focus this whole study on yourself. You need to remember that your organization’s success will depend not only on your skills in guiding the process of being a leader but also investing into the relationships between yourself and the people in your organization who are following you.
So as you go through the study about leadership remember to take care of yourself, but also remember how your health impacts your followers and your organization. You are important, but your followers are important too.
So today we covered some core concepts for our journey into leadership development. I would encourage you to re-read all three definitions for leaders, followers, and leadership. Below are some more resources to enhance your learning process: An example of the value of properly identified roles, review questions, reflection/discussion questions, and some additional resources (both free and for sale).
Case Study: The New England Patriots
The world of professional sports provides some of the clearest pictures of success and failure in leadership. The players at the professional level are all so extremely talented that what sets one team apart from the next is often not sport related skill. Most times, what separates great teams from good teams is an organizational structure that maximizes the available talent.
This is why teams like the San Antonio Spurs can consistently win over a twenty year span with a rotating cast of players working under the same salary cap as the rest of the National Basketball Association (non-salary capped leagues allow some teams to become dominant by simply outspending everyone else - most notably the New York Yankees in the 1990s-2000s). Similarly, the New Zealand “All Blacks” national Rugby team has been globally dominant and consistently ranked the #1 rugby team in the world coming from a nation that is 126th in the world in population. There is a system in which the players are put into a position to maximize their talent because of organizational structures.
In North America there is no team that brings to mind the idea of a consistent dynasty more so than the New England Patriots, whose accomplishments easily make them the most decorated American sports team of the 21st century (5 Super Bowl wins, 8 Super Bowl appearances, 12 AFC Championship Game appearances).
The unprecedented success of the New England Patriots is not because they horde all the good talent, rather they often have mediocre talent (by NFL standards) and yet succeed at the highest level. For example, they have played a former college lacrosse player and former college quarterback as their wide receivers in the Super Bowl (Chris Hogan and Julian Edelman respectively). The New England Patriots quarterback was also famously drafted after 198 players were deemed more talented than him in the 2000 NFL draft.
The reason this team is successful is because of the simple motto of the team’s head coach: “do your job”. Each player on the team knows his role, and knows that he will be held accountable for performing his role on the team. A player, even one as famous as Tom Brady, will get publicly scolded by the coach for failing to do.
The talent of an organization, in this case the New England Patriots, is maximized when everyone knows his role and knows that he must do his job.
This is why we needed to take the time to define what it means to be a leader, be a follower, and understand what leadership is. We need to know what it actually means to be a leader and a follower so that we can do our job.
Your talent will only really be maximized when you understand your role and learn how to do it well. So take the time to re-read the definitions and as you go through the final exercises, think about how you can “do your job” in these roles within your organization.
What are some common misconceptions about being a leader? Is there anything you’ve had to “un-learn” in the past?
What are some common misconceptions about being a follower? Is there anything you’ve had to “un-learn”?
Is your leadership mutually beneficial for yourself and your followers? What ways can you increase your relational connection with the people following you?
Reflection and Discussion Questions
Is there anything that stuck out to you from this lesson? If so, what was it and why did it stick out to you?
Think of the best leader you’ve ever had the opportunity to follow:
Write down at least 1 thing that made him/her special.
Write down at least 1 thing that made you want to follow them.
Write down at least one thing that can you learn from them.
If you’ve had any previous leadership experience, think of the best follower you’ve ever had the opportunity to lead:
Write down at least one thing that made him/her special.
Write down at least one thing that can you learn from them.
Share your answers and ideas with your group if you are doing LeadWell as part of a team (you may want to omit the names of the leader/follower to whom you are referring).
Want to learn more about what we talked about today? Here are some resources to help you discover more about today's topic.
Defining Leadership: Do You Manage … or Do You Lead? (St. Thomas University Online)
How to Be an Inspiring Leader (Harvard Business Review)
Why You're Not A Leader (Forbes Magazine)