Leadership seems to be a mystery to many people. That is unnecessary in my opinion. Here is my view of what leadership is and is not, without going too deep into the much bigger question of what good leadership looks like.
Leadership has no simple agreed-on definition and many people seem to have a hard time putting their finger on what it is. Personally, I think it is quite possible to define what leadership is in a useful way, while it takes a lifetime to master good leadership. The following is my view, based on having read hundreds of books and articles related to leadership, management, and business administration over many years.
A lot has been written on this topic already, but I will write in my own words here and avoid citing references. See books that I recommend in other blog posts.
My preferred definition of leadership is that leadership is primarily about influence and that it is a process or act (i.e. exercising leadership makes you a leader), rather than for example a position. For this blog post, I will use the following definition.
Another way of phrasing this would be: leadership is getting others to accomplish something. I like both, but the first definition is a bit more specific.
I will unpack this and compare it to other concepts in the following.
To start with, let me just point out some obvious details. First of all, leadership is about influencing a group of other people. This can be a small team or a huge organisation or the entire world, but I explicitly exclude ‘self-leadership’ or leading one other person here.1 Second, leadership inherently requires a goal and a need for change. Leaders take people somewhere. Lastly, leadership is about influencing others to act. There are no inherent restrictions on how this can be accomplished and I will have more to say on this below. This last point is what makes leadership both interesting and challenging.
Positional leadership and formal power
Some people appear to see leadership as synonymous with having a formal leadership position (i.e. a formal title) or the exercise of formal power over others. There is a connection, but these are mostly misunderstandings in my view.
Let us first have a look at formal leadership positions. Only having a formal leadership role, such as ’tech lead’ in a software development team or ‘manager’, is often called positional leadership2 and I like this term. If one uses this positional leadership to (successfully) get people to do something, that is clearly leadership! That’s the good news. On the other hand, experience and every single book and article that I have read on leadership agrees on this one: positional leadership is the absolutely weakest and least effective form of leadership. In other words, relying on positional leadership won’t take you far and good leaders with substantial influence rarely rely on their position.
This partially covers exercising formal power too. Note that my definition above doesn’t mention decision making or power in any way. As part of positional leadership, formal power can be used to influence others and this is a weak form of leadership. At the same time, exercising power or making decisions is not the same as leadership. When a judge uses formal power in the court of law, is that leadership? Not really. When a seasoned leader brings together a group of people and inspire them to accomplish a shared goal, is that decision making? Not primarily. Being a leader and being a decision-maker are two separate concepts. They only overlap to the extent that decision making or exercising power somehow influences others towards a goal.
This brings us smoothly to the next topic.
Management and leadership
Many experts argue that management and leadership are two distinct phenomena and I agree more and more for every year. John Kotter explains the difference well in many articles and for example his famous book ‘Leading Change’. In his words:3
Management is a set of processes that can keep a complicated system of people and technology running smoothly. […] Leadership is a set of processes that creates organizations in the first place or adapts them to significantly changing circumstances. Leadership defines what the future should look like, aligns people with that vision, and inspires them to make it happen despite the obstacles.
In other words, managers can be leaders and leaders can be managers, but it is perfectly possible to be only one of the two. Managers are appointed by organisations to exercise formal power and control or maintain the business. Leaders, on the other hand, introduce change and lead people to new places.
It is perfectly possible to be a leader and exercise leadership without even having an official title. It is usually positive, on the other hand, if managers are also good leaders. At the same time, it is not always necessary and far from always the case.
Leaders without titles
I briefly want to point out that many teams and organisations have unofficial leaders with both very real and positive influence on others. There is no need to have a formal title to exercise leadership.
Related to this, can a team have more than one leader? This is a question with a lot of nuance. Having multiple overlapping formal leaders (or decision makers) is, in my view, typically a mistake and a great way to cause confusion. However, leadership does not need to be top-down and follow formal organisation charts. In most modern organisations it is not desirable to only have formal top-down leadership.
It is quite popular nowadays with autonomous agile teams that are ‘self-managed’ and ’empowered’ to a large extent. This requires a lot of leadership from within the teams and between teams. Different individuals can drive different initiatives and exercise very successful leadership at the same time without ever having a leadership title and this is how the most efficient teams operate.
Today’s complex world requires more people to lead, regardless of their titles.
Micro-management vs no leadership
No discussion of leadership is complete without at least touching on the concept of micro-management. This goes a little beyond what leadership is and slightly into what good leadership is, but it is important enough to include anyway.
What is micro-management? Simple! This is when a leader (or manager) exercises formal power over a team to a (much) larger extent than is necessary, where the ‘micro’ refers to all the micro-decisions made by the micro-manager. The typical micro-manager has a command-and-control style of leadership and wants to decide in detail ‘how’ the team performs their work. Is this leadership? As already discussed above - it is. It also has a bad reputation for a reason. It is one of the best ways to lose influence over others and get them to hate both you and their jobs.
What I have seen sometimes is that people then conclude that this is bad (a correct conclusion) and therefore that the opposite must be good (not a good conclusion). In reality, good leadership is all about balance and extremes are rarely effective.
What is the opposite of micro-management? In my opinion, this would be another extreme: hands-off ’leadership’, where the leader is barely present and the team lacks alignment, direction, and support. This is in my opinion not even leadership (check the definition) and is potentially based on the complete misunderstanding that being highly involved as a leader is the same as micro-management.
What do good leaders do then? This seems confusing to some people who are overly afraid of micro-management, but the solution to this conundrum is quite simple. Good leaders are involved and engaged with their teams, without exercising unnecessary formal power. In other words, good leaders empower their teams without abandoning them. They give their teams clarity on direction and goals and facilitate alignment and support their teams as servant leaders, while leaving the teams to decide on how to reach their goals. Also, good leaders coach their teams and get their hands dirty while leading from the front and by example. None of this is ‘micro-management’.
In short, leaders who do not rely extensively on positional leadership (see above) do not need to worry too much about micro-management, as this is only an issue when leading very poorly and over-using formal power. Relying too much on positional leadership is more important too look out for than accidentally micro-managing.
What do leaders actually do?
So far, this blog post has stayed quite abstract, apart from a deep dive into micro-management. What do leaders do to influence others? In short, this is where it gets difficult, because no two situations are ever the same and good leaders adapt their style and methods based on what is needed. Good leadership requires good people skills, including the ability to ‘read the room’ and adapt accordingly. Equally, it requires the ability to strike a good balance between competing extremes in complex situations.
Let me get a little bit more specific, however. For the details, it is necessary to read whole books or at least many articles!
First, let us remember what the goal is: influencing people to achieve goals. Second, we already concluded that trying to exercise power over others is an ineffective way to influence them. So we know what not to do.
There are some obvious things that leaders traditionally do:
- Create a compelling mission, vision, and strategy for their organisation.
- Get the right people together behind the vision and strategy.
- Inspire and motivate people.
- Coach others and share knowledge.
- Facilitate communication and alignment, including information sharing.
- Help their teams remove impediments in various ways.
How specifically does one inspire, influence, and sell people a vision? Not particularly easy. Part of this is just pure people skills. Part of this can be learned from books, such as:
- Drive by Daniel Pink (2010) about what motivates people. In short, intrinsic motivation is much more powerful than extrinsic rewards or punishment (at least for creative work).
- Influence by Robert Cialdini (2021) about common influence tactics.
- How to Win Friends and Influence People by Dale Carnegie. A classic. Partially obvious, but it works.
- Mindset by Carol Dweck about the advantages of cultivating a growth mindset.
- Empowered by Marty Cagan about building empowered product development teams.
There are many many more books and articles about this, of course. The core of increasing one’s influence is to focus on cultivating people skills and emotional intelligence and not relying on coercion or formal power.
Empowerment and servant leadership
Finally, let me say a few words on empowerment and servant leadership. For a full treatment read any of the good articles or books on the topic out there. The whole agile software development movement builds on these ideas too.
If we go back to the definition, it is easy to first conclude that empowerment of teams and servant leadership are indeed leadership, as long as it influences people to achieve goals. That is also the main argument for these methods: they give results! Tell people how to do their job and they just hate you. Sell people on a compelling vision and let them decide how and you will get much better results.
Since so much good has already been written about this, I will not go into details. I just want to re-iterate one detail a bit clearer about how empowerment works in practice. Empowered execution is even popular in the American military (as described in Team of teams and other books) in order to react quickly to the fast-moving battlefields of today. Decisions are made most accurately and the fastest if people closest to the action make them. This is best seen as a complement to traditional top-down decision making and leadership, however, and not as a 100% replacement.
My view, and many with me, is that the best organisations are led through a combination of traditional top-down centralised leadership (where that makes sense) and a network of empowered teams that rely on informal communication and distributed decision making. As always, the key is balance. Teams need to receive some direction from above just as well as some (or a lot of) freedom to organise themselves and take initiatives from below.
I hope this was useful for someone and gives a relatively concrete answer to what leadership actually is. The definitions above with the following explanations can act as good and simple guidelines to what leadership is, in my view. Actually achieving good leadership and earning a team’s permission to lead is more difficult and worth spending a lifetime on in my opinion. With the right attitude, I believe everyone can and should step up and lead when the need arises! We need more good leaders than ever and practice makes perfect.
I’m not necessarily saying that it is incorrect to speak of leadership in these other situations, but it is not the kind of leadership that I discuss here. ↩︎
Kotter, J. (2012) Leading Change, With a New Preface by the Author. Harvard Business Review Press. Available at: https://www.perlego.com/book/837049/leading-change-with-a-new-preface-by-the-author-pdf ↩︎