The words lead, leader, and leadership all contribute to our understanding of how some people can influence and guide others to act in particular ways to achieve a common purpose. In describing such activities you need at least two of the words with which I began this column. Most often we use only the word leader with leading. Leadership isn’t often paired with leading. There’s been a lot of discussion of the qualities of people who can guide such actions while in my opinion not enough of the words lead and leadership.
Leader qualities often dominate the discussion of leading. Leader qualities are not sufficient to determine success in guiding and influencing others. The meek and humble, the strong and powerful can lead. It is my belief that leading and leadership also need to be taken into consideration to complete our full understanding of the process. Anyone can lead regardless of whether or not they possess leader qualities. It’s the circumstances a person faces that determine whether or not they will lead.
In an emergency there are many examples of ordinary people leading others to safety or performing other acts of selfless heroism. As another example, if a person has the necessary expertise to help a team accomplish an important goal, that person can lead others to success. So leading isn’t the exclusive domain of people with the typical qualities of a leader. I’m sure you know the list. The trouble is that the list is too long and getting longer. It is inclusive of command and control qualities and nearly passive qualities such as humble, humorous, and selfless. The list is impressive but doesn’t really distinguish leaders from non leaders.
So let’s connect the dots about guiding and influencing others. Leading is just that “the ability to show the way, to guide and influence others to take action to meet common objectives.” Then you need to describe the qualities that facilitate that behavior. The relevant behaviors are: a good communicator, collaborative, resilient, persistent, a focus on the objectives, uses simple language that’s easily understood, and has a vision that others want to fulfill. There are many other descriptors and as I mentioned earlier drift further and further away from leadership qualities into nice person and maybe a good manager. We’ve not really connected the leader with leading followers.
Where does leadership enter the picture? Leadership links leaders and followers. Rather than follower I prefer the word implementer since they are the people who do the heaving lifting. Leadership is more of a long-term relationship in terms of leaders and implementers. It’s a value based process that encourages leaders and implementers to willingly take actions to achieve a common purpose. Now the qualities of both leaders and implementers overlap. Both are focused on objectives, are collaborative, competent, trustworthy, good people skills, and flexible.
Are there special skills for the leader when the implementer has such an impressive list? Yes, there are. They include a strong sense of direction; willingness to tackle the tough problems; tolerates ambiguity; is patient; has values that inspire others; plans ahead; is a critical thinker and insightful learner; and works to exceed expectations. Can you imagine the benefit of these skills within the process of leadership? Better outcomes and sustainable long-term relationships built on success are clear benefits.
So now is there an interesting connection between the words lead, leader, and leadership? If you want to get a short term task done then lead with the appropriate skills not the full list that exists on the internet. You carefully choose the skills that have the best chance of succeeding with your team. Trust your insights and experience. If you want to achieve a long term project or strategic plan, look to the complementary skills of both the implementers and the leader to assure sustainable success.
To assure the right combination of competencies for both leaders and implementers, examine the demands and challenges of a project you’re working on. If it has a long time horizon and challenging issues then bring up a list of complementary skills and competencies that assure success. A worksheet with project challenges on the left, specific implementer competencies in the middle, and leader competencies on the right can serve to highlight what’s needed for sustainable success. Be specific about the technical and people challenges of the project.
Remember implementers have leadership qualities too. Be specific about their competencies. Deciding the leader qualities will be what not only contributes to and facilitates implementer success, but also adds unique leadership values to assure sustainable success.
You’ll be surprised how much you do know about leadership and how valuable the worksheet can be.