What is a leader?

Leaders are not people who have authority over others. Leaders are not people who subscribe to the tens or hundreds of leadership models as their modus operandi of working. Leaders are not a select group of people with traits handed down through heredity.

Leaders are not even those people who do the right things versus the manager who does things right.

Simply, a leader has followers.

Beyond that definitions of a leader are too broad, too obtuse and the attributes sound too much like a cross between a religious icon and a comic book hero or a cross between a militaristic person and a romanticised version of an elite sportsman to be of use to people aspiring to be leaders.

The types of people I have seen in the community and in business who have been successful leaders, as determined by their followers, have had a wide variety of traits.

Some have been women who regard themselves as a ?housewife?, who have taken and excelled at leading a choir, a committee or a club.

Some have been business people with a mastery of a rather technical topic.

Some have been charismatic and of high moral character and some have been charismatic and of a moral character that many have judged to be low.

Some have been strong and lead ?from the front?. Some have been quiet yet questioning and preferred to enable their followers to achieve.

What defined them as having been a successful leader are the actions of their followers.

The leaders I have observed have been able to influence groups of people to do things to achieve a result in a more cohesive manner than they would have without the leader present.

Three elements are common to the disparate array of leaders I have observed.

  • Trust
  • Self-awareness
  • Accountability

They have had the trust of the followers. Trust has come in many guises. Through a respect for the leader’s humanity, a sense of discipline through a command and control structure, a respect for their knowledge of a subject matter and at times, something approaching the notion of celebrity status.

Trust, in all cases, has been built through an understanding of the needs of the followers. The common thread of the followers has been that they are the people required to get the job done.

It is not the case that the needs of all of the people in the organisation or community have been understood, just enough of those with the skills, knowledge and behaviours required.

Leaders do not have universal following. Far from it, in many cases the level in intensity of loyalty of followers is matched by an equally intense dislike by others. Leaders do not need to lead for ‘all of the people’ in all circumstances.

Self-awareness contributed greatly to those leaders who succeeded over the longest period of time. The leaders who maintained a consistent following even after changing roles in a community or jobs in an organisation or even to a different organisation always understood themselves.

They have understood their limitations and character flaws. This did not stop them being leaders. They did not need to be a comic book hero with every positive virtue man has espoused.

What they did do was to surround themselves with good people that they trusted and to whom they were willing to delegate responsibility, especially in their areas of weakness.

Taking responsibility for their own actions and accountability for their subordinate?s actions was common to only the best. These leaders were the ones that lasted the longest through the worst times and the best times in many different roles and many different organisations.

To summarise, for me, three things determine how many people will follow an individual, for how long, to what level of loyalty:

  • The level of mutual trust developed through understanding the necessary follower’s needs
  • The level of honest own appraisal of the leader?s strengths and weaknesses and the willingness to allow others to help overcome the weaknesses through delegation
  • The ability and desire of the leader to accept responsibility for their actions and accountability for their follower?s actions

Learning to be a leader is a lesson in trial and error. A journey of trying, succeeding and failing that enables the individual to see:

  • The patterns of actions that build trust
  • The weaknesses they thought were strengths and the strengths they thought were weaknesses
  • The patterns of circumstance that will determine when strengths are truly strengths and weaknesses are truly weaknesses
  • The powerful message of character behind accepting responsibility and accountability

What is a leader? Leaders are only ordinary people doing things that ordinary people will follow.