When people ask, “What do you do for work?”, my simple answer is “organizational, team, and leadership development.” Over the years, I have found this answer is the easiest for most people to understand. However, there’s a problem with it because the word leadership is used so broadly to cover so many things that it doesn’t mean much of anything. Do a search for the definition of leadership and you’ll see what I mean. There is abundant research on the critical role leadership has in every endeavor but it is very difficult to succinctly define it.
One way to illustrate the problem the word creates would be to consider what happens when a client asks for help in the development of a leader in their organization. When I ask what they specifically want, the answers often boil down to something like:
- “They need to be more assertive,” or “They need to be less direct.”
- “They’ve got to be more creative,” or “They need to learn how to work within the system.”
- “They have to be more careful,” or “They need to be more expedient.”
- “They need to anticipate needs more quickly,” or “They need to think through the consequences of their actions.”
- “They need to have better executive presence,” or “They need to come across as more accessible.”
- “They need to be better with people,” or “They need to not be so concerned about what others think.”
Individually, each of these statements are fine, but imagine what it would be like to try and improve your skills by doing all these things a leader should do. In other words, be more assertive and less direct, creative and better at working within the system, more careful and expedient, quickly anticipate needs and think through the consequences of your actions more carefully, have a better executive presence and come across as more accessible, be better with people and don’t be so concerned about what they think, etc. Sounds like a formula for an existential crisis.
A lack of a clear definition or understanding about and appreciation for the depth and breadth of the word leadership is why it doesn’t have much punch. For example, some people use it to describe managing, but leading and managing are not the same thing.
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2 Key Variables in Leadership
Because there’s so much that goes into leadership, it’s helpful to break it down into something more specific. Not only does that give it more strength and definition, it also gives it meaning. When thinking about leadership development, it’s essential to first identify which variable you are focusing on. At a high level, there are two variables that can be helpful to consider when defining leadership and discussing leadership development; core and situational.
This is the single most important aspect of leadership development because it is foundational. At the core, who are you? What do you believe is the purpose of life? How well do you know yourself? And do you know how others experience you? These questions, and many more, tie to perceptions of self-worth, self-esteem, personality traits, intellectual capabilities, emotional intelligence, and other central aspects of our identity.
Over the years, I’ve asked numerous leaders I admire to give me their top-three leadership characteristics. Being curious and a continual learner about self and others frequently make the list. Because of the depth of what goes into this area, core leadership development is, by nature, a lifetime process. When a leader works at the core level, an openness to challenging, difficult self-discovery and growth is required. There is deep water here, and the work is often hard, but it is the foundation of leadership.
Although the core is foundational, situational variables in leadership are critical. There are many things to consider at this level, including those identified by Paul Hersey and Ken Blanchard in their well-known Situational Leadership model. Daniel Goleman has also created and popularized six situational Leadership Styles. In addition to these models, there are demographic, cultural, environmental, and positional variables, among others, that should impact leadership decisions and behavior.
Bringing It All Together
At Effectiveness Institute, we work extensively in the area of Behavior Styles. This requires awareness of various patterns of behavior and the skill of reading and responding to the behavior of others in a way that makes a positive impact. People tend to prefer certain behavior patterns more than others, but because behavior is dynamic and can change based on the situation and environment, we need to know how to modify or flex our behavior intentionally, temporarily, and situationally so we can make the appropriate impact. This is one important way the core variable of emotional intelligence is situationally demonstrated in relationships.
While there are many situational variables effective leaders should take into consideration, most of them can be learned and, to some degree, applied by anyone. And therein lies another problem with leadership. I think we would all prefer a doctor, dentist, plumber, electrician, lawyer, etc. who is highly skilled with the knowledge and tools of their field, but isn’t it much better when that individual is easy to communicate with and trust because of who they are? The same applies to leadership, and even more so given the significant impact the leaders we work with have on life. We want them to have great situational leadership skills, but we also want to trust and enjoy working with them, which is ultimately determined by who they are.
George is President and CEO at Effectiveness Institute. With 30 years of experience in leadership development and organizational management, he has helped organizations reach higher levels of performance in industries that include technology, finance, legal, academia, healthcare, automotive, aviation, and service.
He is an avid reader and musician who loves hiking around the PNW.