Leadership is...

Try asking people this question.  The answers you will get are as varied as the folks you are asking.  Often I will hear of someone who says, “If I only was in control or had that position, I could really make a difference.”  To these people, leadership is a position, a title, a name on the door.  They think that whoever is in that position is a leader. 

But that is not true.  In 1994, institutional investors of Saatchi & Saatchi forced the board of directors to dismiss Maurice Saatchi, the CEO.  As a result of this, several key executives left as well and many of the advertising firm’s largest clients like British Airways and Mars.  Saatchi’s influence was so great that the company’s stock fell by 50% immediately.  Even though Saatchi lost his title and position, he continued to be the leader.  Stanley Huffty quoted, “It’s not the position that makes the leader; it’s the leader that makes the position.”

Some may think that leadership is management and many books have been written that say so.  The difference is that leadership is influencing people to follow in a certain direction, while management focuses on maintaining systems and processes.  Organizations need both leaders and managers.  The best way to tell if a manager is a leader is to ask him to create positive change.  Managers can maintain a system and direction, but they cannot always create change for the better.

Some will say that an entrepreneur is a leader but that is not always the case.  Entrepreneurs are skilled at recognizing opportunities and seizing them.  But they are not always skilled at leading others to achieve the goal with them.

One answer you may have is knowledge is leadership.  That is not the case.  We all know of people who are brilliant and are considered by all to be the smartest person in the room, yet who do not have the ability to lead others.

For me the true measure of leadership is influence.  It does not matter what the title, knowledge, or skill may be.  All leadership boils down to influence.  Margaret Thatcher once said, “Being in power is like being a lady.  If you have to tell people you are, you aren’t.”  If you watch people interact with each other, you will notice some leading and others following.  This often has nothing to do with position or title. 

So why do some people emerge as leaders and others do not?  John Maxwell identified several factors that cause the leadership cream to rise to the top.  First is character, who they are.  True leadership always begins with the inner person.  Second are relationships, who they know.  Any leader has to have an understanding of facts, factors, timing and a vision for the future.  Third is intuition, what they feel.  Leadership is more than a command of the data; it demands the ability to deal with numerous intangibles.  This is often a main difference between a manager and a leader.  Fourth is experience, where they’ve been.  The greater the challenge a leader has faced in the past and has overcome the more credibility they have for the present.  Fifth is past success, what they have done.  Nothing speaks louder to followers than putting some wins under their belt.  Last is their ability, what they can do. The bottom line for a follower is what a leader is capable of doing.  People gravitate toward those who can deliver a victory. 

An incident in the life of Abraham Lincoln illustrates the influence principle well.  In 1832, Lincoln gathered together a group of men to fight in the Black Hawk War.  In those days, the person who put together the group often became the leader.  He was given the title of captain.  But Lincoln had a problem.  He did not know anything about being a soldier, had no prior military experience and did not understand military strategy.

One day, Lincoln was marching several men across a field and needed to guide them through a gate into another field.  But Lincoln could not remember the proper command words to get the company to go edgewise.  He finally shouted, “This company is dismissed for two minutes, when it will fall in again on the other side of the gate.”  Lincoln started out as a captain, but earned his rightful leadership place as a private by the end of the war. 

Lincoln had a leadership proverb, “He who thinks he leads, but has no one following, is only out for a walk.”  If you can’t influence people, they will not follow.  If people will not follow you, you are not the leader.  Leadership boils down to influence, nothing more and nothing less.