How do you describe the verb to lead? Some of my favorite definitions include these from Merriam-Webster:
- to direct the operations, activity, or performance of <lead an orchestra>.
- to guide on a way especially by going in advance.
- to bring to some conclusion or condition <led to believe otherwise>.
- to guide someone or something along a way.
I think we need all four definitions to adequately describe the functions of a leader. Oftentimes, we stop at #1 on the list and assume we're done. Directive-only leaders sometimes work well to accomplish small projects with inexperienced staff. When the project gets bigger, things change. Being a one-dimensional directive leader is shortchanging yourself by ignoring the talents all around you.
The leader who goes in advance is one who can lay out the landscape ahead, as described in definition #2. That part of their job isn't so much to direct, but rather to scout the obstacles. They report back to the team, and then help plan the way to attack. In the Bible, the book of Numbers tells of the story of Moses, who sent out spies to scout out the promised land. Ten of the twelve came back with scary stories, and when Moses heard it, he delayed. God wasn't happy with that response. Perhaps Moses didn't trust his team (with God as leader). God had already told him that it was theirs for the taking. Sometimes, overanalyzing can be a bad thing, and it didn't work out well for Moses, who is one of the top leaders in the Bible.
The third definition, bring to conclusion, is also a critical one. Projects that languish for never being completed is one of the biggest all-time leadership failures. The very definition of project must include a start and an end. Without a specific, measurable, and attainable goal - the project may never complete and therefore remain in perpetuity. Without a conclusion, effort declines, visibility is lost, and energy diminishes.
The fourth definition is perhaps the most critical. The team is what is important. That team can be one or hundreds of individuals, but they all look for guidance. The leader as coach is that thing that captures our imagination. Think back to your favorite boss. Was he/she always telling you what to do? Or did they help you figure it out on your own? Chances are, they could have given you the answer on day one. But by letting you figure it out yourself, perhaps even struggle, you learned by experience. And that experience is what makes you, in turn, a more desirable employee.
I was blessed to have some very good mentors. I'm thinking about one in particular, who stood out as both cheerleader and coach for me. She was the one who kept pushing me when I was ready to rest on my laurels. I had just accomplished something that (I thought) was great! What did she do? A quick pat on the back, but then a big kick in the butt. She recommended me for a position that was way out of my comfort zone. I took the job, and learned more in three months that I had in my previous fifteen years of professional life. Fifteen years later, I am still indebted to her for that kick.
Tell me about your favorite leader. What was so special about him/her? What have you learned to emulate of them?
P.S. I've started a new website Leadership In Action (http://www.leadershipinaction.org) with the mission of building a community of leaders dedicated to the advancement and development of ethical leadership. Come visit us there.