It happens every day on every job, in every community, and in every organization. People have choice words for leadership. Sometimes it’s justified. Other times, not so much. The most ambitious of these critics, however, imagine making stuff happen. Ambition is great but these same critics should be warned that leadership is not a perfect art or science.
Having observed a myriad of leadership styles during my 30-plus years in the workforce and in several organizations, leadership has always intrigued me. My curiosity even led me to a master’s degree program in Strategic Leadership. My experiences and academic studies have led me to this—there is no one “right” definition of leadership. Gadzooks!
The problem is that leadership is not as straightforward as people want it to be. According to leadership scholar Gayle Avery, research suggests that most people view leadership as a “directive” activity with “vision” not being “part of the general person’s prototype of leadership.” Think about it. If you ask 10 different people their definitions of leadership, you may get at least five distinctly different answers. The flip side is that people who do appreciate the complexity of leadership give themselves ample opportunities to make a real difference as they pursue leadership roles.
Regardless of what you think of him, Donald Trump is a heck of an example of the complex nature of leadership. Tulane University’s president emeritus Scott Cowen challenged his leadership theory class to determine whether or not Trump is an effective leader as president. In 2018, he organized a debate where one team argued that Trump is an effective leader and the other argued that he is not. By a vote, the class declared the affirmative team the winner based on their argument that Trump is decisive, a “go-getter,” and has made bold foreign policy moves. However, even those who voted for the affirmative questioned his people skills, morals, and ethics. With that example, we have two questions on the table:
What is the mix of elements that define effective leadership? Also, what should people consider as they pursue leadership roles? I think the list of considerations can be endless, but here are five things that stand out to me.
Know your identity and value.
Knowing who you are and how you influence those around you is important in leadership. When I think of it, the leadership role where I made big difference was as an interim director of college admissions. I walked into that situation confident in my intellectual flexibility, energy, determination, resilience, communication skills, candor, and transformational leadership. I am most proud in having helped develop an employee who eventually experienced success as that college's admissions director.
The Big Five Model of Personality is a great tool for unlocking identity and value. The Big Five, according to Robert Lussier and Christopher Achua, is a group of personality traits categorized into the dimensions of surgency, agreeableness, adjustment, conscientiousness, and openness. In surgency are the traits of dominance, extraversion (which other versions of the model use to label this dimension), and energy/determination. Agreeableness includes sociability/sensitivity and emotional intelligence. Throughout the adjustment dimension (which other versions of the model label as neuroticism) are emotional stability/self-control and narcissism and self-confidence. The traits of dependability and integrity are found in conscientiousness. Finally, openness includes flexibility, intelligence, and locus of control. Although I didn’t know the language for those traits at the time, the interim admissions director role worked because of my determination, emotional intelligence, self-control, integrity, flexibility, intelligence, and internal locus of control. The Big Five is a rough guide, but it's a firm skeleton to assign language to one's identity and value. Also, check out my free Personal Branding Resource Center to find out how to articulate what kind of leader you are.
Understand organizational culture.
Every organization has an established culture. People in all organizations and institutions have “beliefs, norms, attitudes, values, assumptions, and ways of doing things” that are understood and taught to those who are new to the environment according to Lussier and Achua. Cultures vary, and it’s up to leaders to evaluate whether or not those culture are productive. Of course, respecting the complexity of leadership means understanding that organizational culture can also be pretty complex. Does the culture support close-mindedness or open-mindedness? Do people resist change or do they take risks? Do members rely on politics or cooperation to get things done? Do they punish each other for mistakes or use mistakes as learning opportunities?
Once leaders tackle the myriad of issues of an organization’s culture, they must determine the next steps. This is where leaders often make personally painful decisions, despite what organizational members may think. Adjusting an organization’s culture to enhance its performance can be painful and even slow, and leaders learn that leadership is anything but a popularity contest.
Followership is how an organization’s members behave as a result of their interactions with leaders. This is not the same as following, by the way. In the Black Greek Success Program, I teach college members that followership is a path to leadership because it is predicated on an active exchange of ideas and beliefs.
Followership consists of several categories. Followers can either be conformists or they can be alienated, meaning they exhibit high critical thinking but low involvement. Followers can also be passive, not as involved and not thinking critically, or they can be effective, highly involved and always thinking. Finally, there are pragmatic followers, who are a little bit of everything—often useful because of their flexibility in the environment but also sometimes seen as playing politics. Knowing where you fit in the followership spectrum can give you an idea of how to build your leadership skills.
Make communication a priority.
This may seem obvious but it’s not. People often think of communication as a one-way process and it can easily get worse for some who take on leadership roles. In fact, a leader’s communication style tells their followers everything they need to know about the leader. Amy Blaschka wisely wrote in Forbes, “As a leader, every time you open your mouth…or sit down at your laptop…the words you choose send a message. The best leaders understand this and frame their communications around these essential words: Someone’s always listening.” While leaders have their own communication styles and should be true to their identities, they should also consider their followership to craft the most effective ways to communicate.
I place a very high value on resilience, because how people respond to adversity speaks volumes. This counts 1,000 times over for leaders. Regardless of how effective a leader is—whether it means leading a high-performing organization, acting with a high degree of ethics or being beloved by many—there will always be that crew looking to take leadership down. It doesn’t matter why; what matters is how the leader handles it.
Leadership is hard work. It can be absolutely thankless. That is why leadership is probably the ultimate test of emotional intelligence, vision, and execution. Being clear on one’s identity and value and reading the patterns of followership can show a way forward on the journey to leadership. Maybe the glorious recognition won't happen, but the results of effective leadership are nothing short of rewarding.