What Is a Leader?

chess kingEveryone likes to talk about leadership. And everyone seems to think they know what it takes to be a leader. Truth is … most people have it all wrong. Leadership – true leadership, has become hard to find. In its place, society seems to have embraced a watered-down shell of what leadership is really meant to be. I think the decline of real leadership is due, in part, to the perpetuation of several myths.

1. You can’t lead unless someone reports to you. There are a lot of young, promising leaders out there who feel they have to attain a position in management to become a leader. This misguided perception means we miss out on the benefits of their leadership. And while they wait for a position to validate their worth as a leader, they risk missing out on potential for further personal growth.

2. Having someone report to you makes you a leader. On the other hand, there are plenty of managers who feel that just because they are in a position of authority, that this makes them a leader. This is a dangerous assumption. It causes many good, productive, well-meaning employees to suffer at the hands of misguided people on charge. Studies show that one of the top reasons people leave a company is the absence of quality leadership. Poor leaders cause irreparable damage to individuals and organizations.

3. Leaders are born not made. Another common misconception is that only a select few have what it takes to lead. Everyone had leadership potential inside them. It’s just that some have yet to tap into that potential. Some indulge in self-limiting beliefs. Others let the negative opinions of others hold them back. Leadership is a skill. And just like any skill, it has to be developed. It has to be nurtured, tested, and grown.

4. Leading means giving orders. We all know someone who just loves being in charge. They love making decisions and telling others what to do. Some of the people I know who fit this description are three year olds. Others are adults. Bossing someone around doesn’t make you a leader. Leadership entails so much more than just giving orders. Some of the best leaders I’ve encountered contributed more by following directions than by giving them.

5. Leaders are perfect. Nobody is perfect. Nobody. Managers who feel they can do no wrong are dangerous people. Followers who blindly assume the man or woman in charge have it all figured out are just as dangerous. Leaders, more than anyone else, understand that they need other people to be successful. They know that without others to provide counsel, differing opinions, and unique viewpoints; they are doomed.

So what makes a leader? How do we define leadership?

The best definition of leadership I’ve seen goes something like this: People follow you.

Regardless of your position, regardless of your pay, regardless of your background – if people choose to follow you, you are a leader. Leadership then isn’t about titles or responsibilities or pay grade. Leadership is personal. Leaders are the people who behave in ways that cause others to want to be around them. Leaders get followed.

So, who’s following you?

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