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June 01, 2017 by Derek Olsen

Clarifying Leadership

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Clarifying what leadership means helps everybody lead. How you define, discuss and model leadership influences how people identify themselves as leaders.  Leadership development initiatives often reveal (unintentionally) that many employees neither consider themselves to be leaders currently, nor want to be leaders in the future. Everybody leads something, and there are costs to the business when these non-leaders are unaware of what they are leading. An attitude of “that’s not my problem” creates results focused narrowly and short-term, and are self-serving above the needs of the business. When development efforts focus on leadership as a role, rather than leadership as a way of working, opportunities are missed for non-leaders to be more effective at what they are leading already.

How the word leadership is often used inadvertently allows people to be non-leaders by assuming everyone has a common understanding of what it means. The concept of leadership is complex, subjective and highly personal. Non-leaders associate leadership with a variety of misconceptions and false, self-limiting beliefs. They compare themselves to someone much different, are intimidated by the perceived responsibility, and form some version of “I don’t have what it takes.” From this perspective, it makes sense they would prefer someone else do the leading for them.

To shift the perception of leadership from an externally defined role to an internally defined way of being, gives people clear messaging and modeling about what leadership really is, and why it is needed from everyone, not just the bosses. Leaders grow and move the business forward - that should include everyone collecting a paycheck. Development then helps clarify what they are leading, to where, why, and how they impact others along the way.

Regardless of how inspiring your leadership philosophy may be, what matters is how it is lived day-to-day in the workplace. Some tips:

  • Shift the organization’s language from “Who are our next leaders?” to “What is needed to support everyone’s leadership?”
  • Ask your non-leaders what leadership is to learn how your organization really defines it.
  • Celebrate individual contributors for their leadership contributions.
  • Define success metrics for building trust, motivating people and influencing decisions that benefit the whole business.
  • Be transparent about your own challenges, learning, and growth.  
  • Celebrate wins and awknowledge failures collectively.
  • Understand and express the value your people bring to the business.
  • Design salary grades and succession planning to encourage collaboration instead of a hierarchical, top-down mentality.
  • Engage your teams in conversations about leadership and let them create their own definition - they probably have better ideas than you do.
  • Create space in meetings to discuss how leadership is showing up, who is leading what, how is it being led.

Uncoupling leadership from its association with title and personality traits will require persistence and patience. People may be slow to change when they have become accustomed to waiting for direction, avoiding responsibility and playing it safe. There may be some deconstructing of long-held myths about leaders are certain types of people, or do things a certain way. Leadership is accessible to all. Leaders believe in others more than others believe in themselves. That is your job regardless of where you are in your organization. Go lead.

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