According to the Brandon Hall Group, more than 70 percent of employees feel their leaders cannot carry their companies into the future. The organization’s research shows a mere 18% of businesses render their leaders “very effective” at meeting their organization’s goals. This demonstrates a gap between being given the opportunity to lead and effectively leading. To amend this problem, those in leadership roles need to answer two questions: “What is a leader?” and “What does leadership mean?”
As referenced in Jim Collins’ best-seller, Good to Great, the benefits of understanding and practicing leadership is the difference between mediocrity and excellence. Leaders who dedicate their lives to growing their leadership skills inspire and motivate their team members to achieve a mission that accomplishes their vision of a better future. They create trusting teams full of individuals who feel recognized for their work and fulfilled by it. As a result, the company and its people prosper. Employee turnover reduces, engagement levels increase, and profits experience an upswing. When this happens, executives have more time to focus on the work that matters most: providing the direction needed to accomplish their vision and multiplying leaders who will implement these plans.
To learn how to do this, find out more about what leadership is, the leadership traits all great leaders need, and tips for becoming a better leader.
What is Leadership?
Leadership is an action in which one person guides those around them to move from one point to another. The word stems from the Old-English word lædan, which means to lead, bring, take, carry, guide, or conduct. Additionally, the Middle High German word leiten, meaning “to lead, guide, travel, or to cause to go,” also influenced the development of the word “leadership.” In the early 1800s, people added the “-ship” aspect, which created a new word denoting a leader’s “state or position of being.”
Characteristics of a Good Leader
While the simple definition above might make leadership sound easy, developing into a top-tier leader takes a lifetime. Employees need to believe in their leader’s mission, have faith in the person guiding them, and feel motivated, inspired, and supported by them. Great leadership is influencing people so much, they volunteer to get on their feet and march into battle with you. As explained by John C. Maxwell in 5 Levels of Leadership, these people spend decades developing their leadership styles, qualities, and skills in order to best serve those around them, which in turn maximizes their influence.
Needed leadership traits include, but are not limited to:
- Emotional intelligence
- Time management
- Analytical thinking
- Strategic planning
- Communication skills
- Vision-casting abilities
- Dedication to growing and developing other leaders
Find out how to develop the top 25 leadership qualities.
Top Leaders Answer “What Does Leadership Mean to You?”
Organizations and their people are like fingerprints—no two are exactly the same. While those in leadership roles might share common beliefs about what leadership means, each individual will have a different experience that shapes their definition of the word. For this reason, it’s important to ask a wide variety of people who’ve been leaders “What does leadership mean?” and “What does it mean to be a leader?” This helps provide more perspective on what leadership is.
Below are some of the top quotes describing the meaning of leadership:
- “Leadership is an action, not a position.” —Donald McGannon
- “Leadership is unlocking people’s potential to become better.” —Bill Bradley
- “Management is doing things right; leadership is doing the right things.” —Peter Drucker
- “The role of leadership is to transform the complex situation into small pieces and prioritize them.” —Carlos Ghosn
- “Leadership is not about titles, positions, or flowcharts. It is about one life influencing another.” —John C. Maxwell
- “A leader is one who knows the way, goes the way, and shows the way.” —John C. Maxwell
- “Effective leadership is putting first things first. Effective management is discipline, carrying it out.” —Stephen Covey
- “Real leadership is leaders recognizing that they serve the people that they lead.” —Pete Hoekstra
- A leader is one who sees more than others see, who sees farther than others see, and who sees before others see.” —Leroy Eimes
- “Leadership is the capacity to translate vision into reality.” —Warren G. Bennis
- “There is a difference between being a leader and being a boss. Both are based on authority. A boss demands blind obedience; a leader earns his authority through understanding and trust.” —Klaus Balkenhol
- “True leadership lies in guiding others to success—in ensuring that everyone is performing at their best, doing the work they are pledged to do and doing it well.” —Bill Owens
Read more inspiring leadership quotes.
3 Tips for Strengthening Leadership Skills
Answering the question, “What does leadership mean?” is the same as asking, “What actions should I practice to become a better leader?” This is because leadership is an action. Think of becoming a great leader like becoming a professional basketball player. You need the desire, passion, resilience, and talent to reach the highest level of the game. Still, these things aren’t enough. You’ll need to spend day-in and day-out refining your technique and skill set, despite how naturally gifted you are. Greatness doesn’t present itself on a silver platter. Leaders who want to know what great leadership means have to put in the work to find out for themselves. To start the journey of doing this, practice the tips below.
1. Define Your Vision and Mission
One of the first steps in learning what it means to lead is developing a clear vision. Without a vision, there is no direction, and without direction, a leader isn’t leading. To learn how to cast a vision, study transformational leaders like Martin Luther King Jr. who focus on communicating exactly what they’re striving to accomplish. King’s “I Have a Dream” speech is one of the best examples of describing vision so well, the audience sees the leader’s words playing out in action. By emotionally resonating with his followers, he blurs the lines between his dream and their dream, compelling all those listening to turn this vision into a reality. Once covering an inspiring vision, direct people on the mission—what they need to do in order to make this common goal a reality. This is how you get people to stand up and willingly act.
2. Work on Gaining Emotional Intelligence
Emotional intelligence consists of self-awareness, self-regulation, social awareness, and relationship management. All these are critical leadership skills because, without them, relationships crumble. As the late Jack Welch, former CEO of General Electric wrote in a column for The Wallstreet Journal, “A leader’s intelligence has to have a strong emotional component . . . He has to have high levels of self-awareness, maturity, and self-control. She must be able to withstand the heat, handle setbacks and, when those lucky moments arise, enjoy success with equal parts of joy and humility.” He goes on to say it is one of the rarest qualities in a leader, but one of the most important.
To develop an increased level of emotional intelligence:
- Reflect on emotional triggers—what causes you to get heated, shut down, or respond out of character?
- Strategize on how to gain control of your emotions. For instance, this might look like doing breathwork, working out for 30 minutes, or spending an hour practicing self-care.
- Develop a problem solving strategy and a decision making process to avoid dwelling on issues too long.
- Practice active listening.
- Meet one-on-one with employees to discuss goals and their career development.
- Gain empathy by considering others’ emotions, feelings, and thoughts.
- Use time management skills to prioritize and complete the work that matters most to the business’s future.
Learn more about developing emotional intelligence.
3. Make Growth and Development a Top Goal
There’s no such thing as great leadership by coincidence. As mentioned earlier, it takes dedication, practice, and the hunger to learn how to serve to the best of your abilities. Whether it’s reading leadership books and articles, listening to business podcasts, meeting with a mentor, watching leadership videos, or becoming a part of a mastermind group for business owners and executives, reserve a portion of your day for growth. In addition to this, establish a time to practice or sharpen the skills you’re learning. Your knowledge of leadership is most useful when it’s put into implementation. In doing these actions, you’ll actively learn what it means to be a leader.
Effective Leadership is Not Management
It should be noted, there’s a difference between leading and managing. Leaders communicate their vision, inspire people to do the work needed to obtain this picture of a better future, and shift the team’s direction as needed. Managers control the workflow process and make sure employees meet organizational goals. For example, a manager would be responsible for measuring an employees’ performance levels. However, a leader would be tasked with identifying and communicating quarterly goals. Unlike leaders, managers do not have followers, they have subordinates.
With that being said, are you leading or managing? While the two aren’t mutually exclusive, it is important that people know the difference so they can focus on doing the actions that develop impactful, purpose-driven companies. Letting managers manage and leaders lead allows everyone to properly play their role without stepping on each others’ toes. Additionally, leaders who try to lead and manage will find themselves with little to no work-life balance. This causes work stress and burnout because both positions are full-time jobs.
Feel like you’re still stuck in a managerial mindset? Check out the list of articles below to learn more about developing into a leader.