As I mentioned in a recent post, if you think leadership is mostly about position, you’ll seek leadership positions. If you think about leadership as actually leading, you’ll focus on actually leading. You see, the way you think about leadership affects how you practice leadership. Stan Deetz, a fascinating organizational communication scholar noted, “Concepts cannot simply name abstract variables, they must be windows on the world.”
Of course, thousands of leadership definitions exist. Quite simply, John Maxwell famously quipped: “Leadership is influence – nothing more, nothing less.” More complicated, Warren Bennis explained: “Leadership is a function of knowing yourself, having a vision that is well communicated, building trust among colleagues, and taking effective action to realize your own leadership potential.”
I don’t want to add another leadership definition to the zillions that already exist, but I do want to unpack a functional approach to leadership. I argue that true leaders are people who:
- Influence people toward goals. For so many thinkers, the sine qua non of leadership is always influencing people toward some goals, whether they are the leader’s, the team’s, the organization’s, or the followers’. But leadership is also so much more.
- Positively inspire and invite other people to join them. Leaders are not coercive, manipulative, or controlling. Instead, leaders inspire and invite others to join them on a journey.
- Pursue good ends. Many would disagree with me, but I don’t call Hitler a leader. I’d call him a mis-leader. His ends, and the ends of so many others at the top of org charts are not good. I wouldn’t call what they do leadership. Leadership involves pursuing good, meaningful, life-giving purposes. Of course, what’s good will always be contested.
- Use ethical, appropriate means to accomplish goals. Leaders don’t cheat, don’t steal, and don’t manipulate people or systems to reach their goals. Rather, they act ethically and appropriately to the situation at hand.
- Develop people. Leaders leave people better than they were when they began leading them. Leaders don’t drain their followers, they don’t take from their followers, and they certainly don’t use their followers to build their own kingdoms. If you want to find a great leader, look for followers who are growing in joy, skill, capacity, and output month after month.
- Serve. Leaders don’t lord their authority over others. Instead, they serve. They do whatever is best for their team, organization, small group, church, and followers. They don’t look out for what’s best for themselves, but what’s best for their organization and for others. They serve.
- Act with humility. Leaders assess themselves appropriately. They recognize, and act out of, their strengths and weaknesses. They recognize they are no more important than any other person. They are humble.
- Shepherd followers. Leaders care for those they lead. They love them. They see those they lead as beautiful people, not as tools, gears, or parts of a machine.
I Peter 5:1-6, one of my favorite passages of Scripture, highlights much of what leaders do:
To the elders among you, I appeal as a fellow elder, a witness of Christ’s sufferings and one who also will share in the glory to be revealed: Be shepherds of God’s flock that is under your care, serving as overseers—not because you must, but because you are willing, as God wants you to be; not greedy for money, but eager to serve; not lording it over those entrusted to you, but being examples to the flock. And when the Chief Shepherd appears, you will receive the crown of glory that will never fade away. Young men, in the same way be submissive to those who are older. All of you, clothe yourselves with humility toward one another, because,
“God opposes the proud
but gives grace to the humble.”
Humble yourselves, therefore, under God’s mighty hand, that he may lift you up in due time.
Now, that’s a substantial list. And it sets a high bar for leadership. While anyone can lead, not every “leader” always leads. Certainly, not everyone who holds a leadership position is a leader.
Instead, those who lead are leaders. And leadership is what they do. Anything short is not really leadership. So, what do you say: let’s stop calling that leadership?
Remember, the way you think about leadership affects how you practice leadership.
- What is the benefit of thinking of leadership as actually leading rather than holding a position of leadership?
- What else do leaders do?
This is the second post in a summer series on leadership. I hope you’ll stick with me through the next several weeks as I further unpack team leadership, both biblically and empirically.