If you look up “leadership” in the dictionary, you’ll see references to “leader” and “leading” but no real description of the idea itself. The lack of definition there is odd, considering that in his book “Leaders,” published in 1997, Warren Bennis asserted there are more than 850 definitions of the term floating around. That’s a lot to wrap your head around, even if you’re in a leadership position already.
Leadership, it seems, is difficult to define in a single way. I have found it to be contextual. Leadership calls for different practices and different qualities in specific situations. And that leads to the wide variety of terminology used to portray leadership as a concept.
It would be tough to cull just a few specific definitions from the herd. But it’s not so difficult to notice some common themes included among them. As you strive to lead your team, here are five definitions of leadership you should know and why they’re important.
1. Leadership Is Servitude
From Mahatma Gandhi to Martin Luther King, Jr., we recognize servant leaders when we see them. I would argue, as would others, that good leaders are servants to their values, convictions and stakeholders, including those they lead.
Leadership should be unselfish, encouraging broad input, welcoming diverse viewpoints and developing leaders from the rank and file. That’s because leadership is not and should not be a role performed by only a few. A great company creates a culture where everyone can lead in some way, on some projects and with certain talents and skills.
In today’s workplace, you should leave autocratic leadership in the rearview mirror. Employees don’t trust it, don’t respect it and certainly don’t respond well to anything so dictatorial. Instead, strive to provide the resources your team needs and remove the obstacles in their path. Serve your team well, and they will serve the company in the same way.
2. Leadership Is Compassion
Perhaps for most of economic history, “compassion” was far down on the list of business leadership characteristics—if it even made the list at all. Fortunately, that began to change in recent decades. And once companies found themselves at the intersection of a global pandemic, social unrest, political division and economic uncertainty, authoritarian leadership styles became still less tenable. In the new environment, leaders without compassion for their employees were doomed to fail.
Compassionate leadership forges strong connections, builds trust and generates a strong sense of loyalty from employees. That’s because you’re checking in with those you lead, making sure they’re OK and helping them when they aren’t. I have found that this type of leadership, whether I’m leading or being led, is the calm in the storm.
Of course, compassion can’t be the entire definition on its own. You need to know how to use it to motivate people to overcome their fears and distractions to deliver their best performance. Still, it’s a necessary tool in today’s leadership box.
3. Leadership Is Visionary
Management and leadership are not the same. Leaders don’t have to be managers, and managers aren’t necessarily good leaders. Managers implement. Leaders are visionary, which means leadership is as well.
If you look up “visionary” in the dictionary, you’ll find words like “imagination,” “foresight” and “wisdom.” Great leaders should have them all and more. Visionary leadership should inspire the kind of hope that removes the obstacles employees can’t look past so they, too, can see where they can go.
If all you’re doing is tackling one task after another every day, you’re just managing. I know it may seem sometimes like that’s all you have time to do. But remember that it’s your role to see beyond where you are, envision where your team could go and help those you lead to see it too.
4. Leadership Is Intrepid
Real leadership isn’t for the fainthearted. Great leaders should be intrepid, willing to take the risks necessary to achieve innovation. All of that requires a talent for pushing boundaries along the way.
Don’t make the mistake of confusing courage with complete confidence. Fearlessness requires acceptance of the potential for failure. By definition here, you don’t know the outcome. You’re simply willing to take a chance on achieving a better one by checking your comfort zone at the door.
If you’re not pushing the envelope, you can’t expect those you lead to do so either. Show them that imperfection, ingenuity and innovation in the pursuit of excellence is completely acceptable behavior. The results can be astounding.
5. Leadership Is Curious
Know one likes a know-it-all, especially one in a leadership role. By their nature, these people close themselves off from infinite possibilities and the promise of discovering new things. Great leadership, on the other hand, is filled with curiosity.
Some of the hallmarks of curiosity in leadership are asking questions, changing opinions after gathering information and being open to receiving that new information in the first place. Curious leaders are never really finished because they put everything they learn back into a project, a goal and a vision, which leads to change for the better.
How do you know if you’re a curious leader? If you ask employees questions more often than you tell them what to do, you’re probably one. Try being more inquisitive and less comfortable and watch what happens around you.
Instead of reading hundreds of definitions for leadership, consider the traits that most often define great leaders. Internalize what they mean, then aspire to define your leadership in your own terms.