We talk about leaders and leadership nearly every day in the business world, but have you ever tried to actually define leadership? It can be much harder than you may think, but taking the time to define leadership and what makes a leader is crucial to building a cohesive culture and developing future leaders.
What is Leadership?
As part of the research for my new book, “The Future Leader,” I interviewed more than 140 CEOs around the world and asked them each to define leadership. Many people struggled or had to pause to think because it’s a word we use so frequently without really defining. We take the concept of leadership for granted and assume that we all know what leadership is and what a great leader looks like. Once the CEOs found their definitions, their answers ran the gamut. From more than 140 people, I didn’t receive a single duplicate response.
Some CEOs defined leadership as having business acumen, like setting a vision or achieving goals for a company. Other people focused on human qualities like empathy, humility or diversity. Every answer was different, but they were each correct. Every leader has their own personal definition of leadership, which influences how they lead and the culture and direction of their company. The definition of leadership can also change as the leaders themselves change. With new leaders come new approaches to leadership, which impacts overall culture and employees.
Who is a Leader?
Who then is a leader? There have been countless people through history that led people but were inhumane and destructive. Does that still make them leaders? In my mind, a leader is someone who does more than just lead people. They have to be driven by the right motivation and make a positive impact on the people around them.
A leader is someone who can see how things can be improved and who rallies people to move toward that better vision. Leaders can work toward making their vision a reality while putting people first. Just being able to motivate people isn’t enough — leaders need to be empathetic and connect with people to be successful. Leaders don’t have to come from the same background or follow the same path. Future leaders will actually be more diverse, which brings a variety of perspectives. Of course, other people could disagree with my definition. The most important thing is that organizations are united internally with their definition of leadership.
Creating Leadership Filters
With so many definitions of leadership, each organization needs to have a clear definition of what leadership is and what it means to be a leader within their company. The definition can evolve over time, but having even a basic, agile definition is better than no definition at all.
A shared leadership definition within the organization can keep everyone on the same page and help prepare certain types of leaders for the future. Organizations also need to have leadership filters so that the right people end up in positions to lead. If the shared leadership definition of an organization revolves around humble leaders acting as servants, that fuels the leadership filters and helps ensure leaders who fit those characteristics are developed and promoted. Similarly, an organization could filter for leaders who meet their business or financial goals, which means only leaders that prioritize those things would be promoted in the company.
One example of this comes from IBM, which created an intensive leadership program designed to attract, develop and promote the best candidates for leadership roles. IBM uses technology to identify the skills and mindsets required of successful leaders and then screens potential candidates for those characteristics to make informed hiring decisions. IBM’s leadership filters start in the recruitment phase so that potential leaders are identified and hired early on.
Leadership filters ensure the company has a consistent definition of leadership and that the people who best represent the culture and values are promoted to leadership positions. A leader focused solely on raising profits and earning more money wouldn’t fare well in a company focused on developing empathetic leaders. Leadership filters help promote the right people and maintain a cohesive work environment.
Everyone knows what leadership is, but few people can actually put it into words. Creating a cohesive definition within the organization is a crucial step for developing future leaders and maintaining unity and a strong leadership focus.
Jacob Morgan is an author, TED and keynote speaker, futurist and creator of FutureofWorkUniversity.com. To comment, email firstname.lastname@example.org.