What is Leadership?

The qualities of great leadership are inside each one of us!

When I think about leadership, and those people who I believe to be high qualities leaders, the word ‘purpose’ comes to mind. A leader is someone who others choose to follow. That is the simplest definition that I can think of, at least. Now, there are lots of reasons why people follow others: maybe you are forced to; you are paid to; you see others following, and get in line; they are family, a parent perhaps; maybe it is because you believe it to be the right thing to do, for yourself or others; or maybe you are inspired to follow.

The reason ‘purpose’ comes to mind, for me, is that I believe that a leader is a person who is moving in a specific direction. They have an idea about what direction that is, they believe that direction will get them to a specific endpoint, and they inspire others to value that direction/endpoint as well. And when you put those ingredients together: someone who has a values-based direction, someone who sets out on the path based of their values, and someone who inspires others to follow them, you get a high-quality leader.


What are values-based directions?

When we understand our values, our behaviors tend to fall in line with our beliefs. The fact of the matter is that people have to make decisions about the things that matter. And some things have to matter more than others. While we can treat everyone with respect, we cannot give everyone the same time and attention that we give our families, for example. After all, we only have 24 hours in a day.

Just like we have to carefully pick the people in our lives, we also have to pick the other things in our lives that matter too. The way we make decisions about the things that matter to us is through our values. Leaders end up making decisions about the things that matter to them, and they start prioritizing those things. Choosing those things over other things. Other people see those individuals moving in a focused direction—one that is, hopefully, moving toward progress—and they start to emulate that behavior.


What does it take to set out on the values-based path?

Looking Backwards

Identifying your values is a two-part process: the first part is to look backwards. When we look back we want to look at those moments where we felt engaged in what we were doing. Identifying moments where we were engaged will clue us in to what are values may be. Try to attach words to those moments that jump out. Maybe you devote lots of time to sports, and you believe that physical fitness may be one of your values. Try looking deeper. You may discover that ‘Commitment’ or ‘Excellence,’ for example, is the thing that motivates your physical fitness.

The things that we do are often the things that we chose to do. And we do those things, in part, because they are helping us become the person we hope to be in the future. Another way to consider your past actions is to think about your future-self. This person, who you are becoming—every day—is able to guide your behaviors in the present moment. Our interest in the moment is captured by those things that lead us down the path of our ideal development. Leadership is taking a risk, and following that path.

Looking Forwards

The second part of identifying your values is to look forward and decide what kind of life you want to live. Ask yourself the question who do I want to be in 1-year, 3-years, 5-years, etc. There is an element of choice in selecting our values. We get to decide, to a point, what things matter to us. We still have to negotiate with ourselves, however. After all, we are not completely in control of ourselves.

It is very difficult for a person to learn the piano, for example. There are lots of mistakes that are made when you start something new. It might not be fun to start something new. And the thing that you start may not be something that lasts. But you don’t have the option to wait around and not make any mistakes before you start pursuing things that interest you. When you set out on the path, be prepared to take a few wrong turns, and make a few mistakes. You don’t have to beat yourself up. Leadership is setting out on a path, despite the risks. After all, it is better to do something badly, than not to do anything at all!


How do my actions inspire others?

We know that when you start something new, you will likely not be very good at it. In fact, when you start something new it is likely the case that you don’t really even know what mistakes you possibly could make. The thing is, when you start doing something new you learn more. You get better at identifying those things that could trip you up. As you move past those early mistakes and you start to move toward your goals, other people inevitably will start to see your progress. Real leadership is encouraging others to persist through those early barriers that can be discouraging.

Your commitment to jogging might turn into a 5k. That 5k might grow into a half-marathon. And the results from a couple of half-marathons could convince you that you might be ready for a marathon! Maybe you meet people who also like to run but have not yet run a race, and you form a relationship with them. Maybe they start training with you, and come to believe in themselves that they might also be able to run a race one day. After all, you did!



Real leadership starts with people just like you. People who decide what matters to them, and move toward a valued end. They are not perfect right from the get-go. People fumble and stumble, make mistakes and learn, revise and correct as they get more and more experience doing the thing they value. Leadership happens moment-to-moment, through consistency. Inspiring others seems to be pretty much the same story: your actions moment-to-moment, consistently performed are enough to inspire others to walk beside you toward a valued end.


Check out this great TED talk on how great leaders inspire action, by Simon Sinek:


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