Leadership is one of our society’s most discussed topics. It is a universally admired and sought after skill, and yet it seems notoriously difficult to define.
On one hand there are many total misunderstandings about what a leader should look like. I once read an application letter to a leadership training event where the applicant wanted to learn “how to get others to do what you want” and “not being thought of as weak”; and from the way many managers seem to approach the topic, this isn’t a rare opinion.
On the other hand, even for leaders themselves the set of tasks can seem both daunting and yet strangely elusive.
Most of the difficulty here comes from the fact that being judged a good leader is much like being voted prom queen or identified as clever. There are some objective criteria behind these labels, but in the end the final evaluation is subjective, and will come from the people around you. Whether they thought you were a good leader (according to their expectations) is ultimately the metric that counts.
Furthermore, a leader’s taskset is fundamentally fluid and expansive. It’s a bit like being a parent: most of what is happening to your children, is not in fact your fault or fully within your control. Nevertheless, anything that doesn’t get solved by itself, becomes your responsibility. Ditto for leaders.
A certain team might encounter a crisis situation that requires a large shift in the working methods of the team. If the leader doesn’t do a good job of guiding others through this situation, he might become thought of as an ineffective leader- despite the fact that a leader who had the same skills but did not encounter a crisis situation, might be evaluated very postively.
When I think about leadership, I generally break it down into several facets. These help me keep better track of what might be expected of me, and they allow for relatively easy reviewing. And they also help when I’m asked to evaluate someone’s leadership capabilities or am asked to prepare a training on the topic.
Bear in mind two things:
(i) I come from an NGO/public context, so my focus is less on shareholder and KPI considerations
(ii) While in many situations there’s no clear singular leader and there may be many exceptions and such, I will use the ominous term “the leader” without too many disclaimers
Without further ado: my five facets of leadership, more or less in order of importance.
- Hold your team together
The atmosphere and productivity within a team is a function of each member’s commitment to it, and thus each member should feel responsible and implicated in it.
Nevertheless, if there are disagreements and problems that no one is bringing up or resolving, then this automatically becomes your responsibility as a leader.
Keeping the team functional and its atmosphere positive, is generally your primary responsibility. It’s possible to overcome almost any setback in terms of goals and tasks, but once a team disintegrates or loses trust, you’re in trouble.
- Keep your team focused on the goal
The very definition of ‘team’ implies having a common purpose. Any team exists because it wants to achieve a set of goals -whether in a company, NGO, sports or personal context.
Due to unexpected setbacks, burnout, operational overload or other entropy that hits a team, the team may begin to lose sight of its goals or start getting off track. Achieving goals doesn’t happen automatically, and it is up to the leader to continuously adapt its strategy and refocus on the objectives.
This is also where the (sometimes overrated) qualities of motivation and inspiration come in. These are primarily tools to get everybody back on board and start moving in the right direction.
- Strategic decisions
In most cases, it’s a good idea if the team leader has a task package that is slightly less full of operational tasks, than other members of the team. Whereas it’s acceptable (not necessarily ideal) that individual team members focus mainly on their immediate and operational tasks, at the very least the leader should keep an eye out for disruptions, new opportunities, holistic problems, and so on. Think of it as a fieldmarshall: it’s okay for any company commander to focus on his patch of the battlefield, but someone has to keep the larger picture in mind as well.
When a major crisis or disruption occurs, members will look for their leader to at least propose a process for finding solutions, and guiding them smoothly through it.
- Development of the members
This point has a huge importance in NGO and non-profit circles, but I believe it fundamentally applies anywhere. One of the ultimate tests of a leader is that when you leave, an equally capable generation (of leaders and followers) has to be ready to step up.
This means taking special care that the members of the team are learning, having a good time and seeing a future for themselves within the organisation.
Once again this is a responsibility so broad that it technically applies to everyone; so when push comes to shove, it falls on the leader.
- Taking charge/responsibility
Finally, in any smaller situation that’s going wrong and needs improvement, the leader has some role to play; this can be stepping up to facilitate an unproductive discussion, finding a new way out of a problem that’s consuming the team, bringing out team dysfunctions that have been bothering everyone, responding to an uncomfortable moment in a meeting, etcetera.
This is something where it shouldn’t always be the leader jumping in, as it’s actually empowering for others to take charge when the situation calls for it. But when the leader eschews this responsibility too often, members may consciously or unconsciously begin to feel that something is off about how the team is being run.
There you have it. These are the five perspectives from which I think about leadership.
If you keep them all in mind and periodically review them, you’ll be well on the way to getting a grip on how to overview your leadership capabilities
And therein lies the true measure of a leader.