The Nature of Leadership

“If your actions inspire others to dream more, learn more, do more and become more, you are a leader.“ — John Quincy Adams

A Leadership post from the blog at

If you are seeking to make your leadership effective even in the face of adaptive challenges, the following few posts will identify key factors you can apply to your own leadership development.  These posts will be helpful even if you are not in a recognized position of leaders, for as we will see, true leadership does not depend upon organizational position.  Effective leaders lead from wherever they are.

Kouzes and Posner, in their pivotal book, “The Leadership Challenge,” postulated that everyone is eligible to lead. If this is true, it follows that leadership is in some way everyone’s business.  Certainly, not everyone is equipped to be a leader, and there are countless stories of people in position of leadership who have failed miserably if not spectacularly.  Some would have us believe that leadership is innate, and that effective leaders are “born” into success.  Only those gifted with the natural abilities will rise to the challenge of effective leadership.

That is not the case, state Kouzes and Posner, who go on to explain how leadership is a learnable skill-set, and that given the right motivation and skills training, anyone can be effective as a leader.  If they are correct (and I think they are), this helps us understand why true leadership can be found anywhere in an organization or enterprise, not just in positions of organizational or hierarchical management.  In fact, many of the most effective leaders are found not at the top but in the middle, often in positions not designated as leadership posts.  They are quietly getting the good work of leadership done, and are recognized for their contributions by their peers, though often not by their superiors.

If everyone is eligible to lead and leadership can be anyone’s business, if leadership is a learnable skillset and many good leaders lead without title or position, what then is the nature and expression of effective leadership?  Following in this and future posts are some identifiers of effective leadership, especially leadership that effectively meets the adaptive challenge.

Identifying Effective Leadership

Leadership is about people, and the focus of the effective leader is in large part the people who are being led and the beneficiaries of the enterprise that forms the context for the leadership.  Leaders do not primarily lead processes, for these can only be managed.  When a leader states that they lead a process or an activity, they demonstrated a lack of understanding about leadership and their role in it.  If a leader is leading people well, the processes and activities will be well-managed.  This is true even in rough times or when the challenge is to adapt.  If the leader is focused on leading the process, the people who need leadership will not be led, and the process or activity will likely not flourish.

If leadership is about people, then it is both relational and influential.  Kouzes and Posner stated in “The Leadership Challenge (2007), “The most significant contribution leaders make… is to the long-term development of people and institutions so they can adapt, change, prosper, and grow.”  The institution or enterprise cannot adapt, change, prosper, and grow if the people are not encouraged to do the same.  No institution can rise above its people, and its people cannot rise above their leadership.  The core of it is influencing people, and through them influencing outcomes.  The work of the leader then is to build relationships that are open and interactive enough to encourage people to thrive and to allow the leader to influence the team members both directly and indirectly.  If the institution is not effectively meeting its challenges and opportunities, it is likely that this is due to the leadership level not meeting its responsibilities and opportunities to truly lead.

Effective leaders to not tell people how to perform; they model the performance that is necessary for success.  Again, Kouzes and Posner identify one of the critical features of successful leadership as “modeling the way.”  When many in leadership “lead” by telling others what to do and how to do it, effective leaders quietly model the performance they seek.  By this, I do not mean that a leader must be able to perform every task in the organization.  By modeling the way, the leader is consistently demonstrating the character qualities, the commitment to success, the relational behaviors, the responsibility, and the drive needed by the team to succeed.  If leader needs selfless performance from the team, team members who are hard workers who exhibit diligence and drive, it is up to the leader to model these traits all the time.  If the team requires honesty and integrity at all levels, no can more consistently demonstrate these character qualities than the leader, all the time.

If your leadership is growing in its ability to exemplify a deep concern for the people on the team and who consume the products, influencing others through sincere relationships, and modeling the behaviors and character qualities needed for success, you are well on your way to effective, adaptive leadership.

“A leader is best when people barely know he exists, when his work is done, his aim fulfilled, they will say: we did it ourselves.” — Lao Tzu

More identifiers of effective leadership in the next post from Level 5 Services.

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