Think Leadership Ideas

What Is Leadership?

I believe there is a definite answer to the perennial question, “what is leadership?” But it’s not one that follows conventional thinking.

While there can seem to be as many concepts of leadership as there are writers and speakers on the subject, almost every book, or article, or presentation focuses on a unidimensional perspective of leadership that falls into one of five general categories.
Leadership is most effectively understood from a multi-faceted perspective, not a unidimensional one - that we are best informed about leadership by looking at the five categories, or dimensions, as a whole. Taken together, they span roles, actions, and individual qualities to form a coherent and actionable concept of leadership.
Let’s look at each of the five dimensions as they express differing definitions of leadership, then see how they hang together to inform us about leadership in the 21st century.

Head: Leadership is the art and responsibility of being in charge.
The head is a role that is recognized as having a formal position of accountability, power, or control, relative to others. Usually this role has a title, whether boss, chief, director, team leader, president, supervisor (or mayor).
The driving objective of the Head dimension is
authority, i.e. responsibility and accountability for an entity and a purpose.

Expert: Leadership is being recognized as best in your domain.
The expert is a role created when specialized experience, skill, or knowledge in a field or domain is acknowledged, often in the form of credentials, licensure, or education. The driving objective of the expert dimension is credibility, i.e. adherence to parameters set by a profession, established practices, or other regulation.
head and expert are role dimensions. Roles by nature are continuous, in that being assigned a role, you hold the role regardless of what actions you are actually taking at any given moment. One is still a CEO while eating lunch, an attorney regardless of whether appearing in court, or a dentist even on vacation.

Manage: Leadership is aligning resources to achieve goals.
Managing is action taken to align resources within established processes in order to achieve predetermined objectives. Managing is often associated with the two roles above, in that the head role lends authority for action and the expert role provides specific knowledge that may be required to achieve objectives. Simply put, the core objective of managing is stability - to achieve goals efficiently, effectively, and predictably.

Lead: Leadership is gaining willing followers for a course of action when the way forward is unclear.
Leading is the act of gaining willing followers for a course of action when the path forward is unclear or undetermined. The act of leading begins when people choose to follow someone on a course of action. The skill of leading is to create relationships and environments where people willingly choose to follow. The driving objective of leading is change - movement from one state or condition to another.
lead and to manage are action dimensions. Unlike roles, actions are discontinuous - they are observable events that have a beginning and end. When we see someone act in response to the behavior of another, we are witnessing a discrete act of leadership, whether the act is understood to be either managing or leading.
Managing differs from leading in whether the actions are dictated by established relationships and structures (managing) or are chosen willingly by followers (leading). Managing and leading are further distinguished from each other by whether the path forward is predetermined (following established processes) or involves new, uncertain, and unknown directions. An apt analogy is a parade. A parade is an exercise in managing, organizing participants to follow prescribed actions. However, getting parade participants to clear a path to allow for a sudden and unscheduled passage of emergency vehicles requires an act of leading, getting people to change what they are doing in an uncertain circumstance.

Character: Leadership is about the personal qualities that encourage people to follow.
The fifth dimension of leadership is about character, the unique qualities, experiences, values, perceptions, thinking, feeling, behaviors, and desires that people bring to an endeavor as a human being, and how these impact the roles they hold and the actions they take.
Many discussions of leadership from this perspective focus on lists of certain qualities that are felt to be essential to “good” leadership - for example, how likability, decisiveness, or strategic thinking impacts one’s roles and how one manages and leads others. While such lists can be valuable and impart tremendous insight, it’s also wise to remember that there is no absolutely universal “quality” of leadership. For any quality that is essential in some circumstance, it’s opposite may be just as valuable in another.
The key objective of the character dimension is
authenticity, being true to oneself while at the same time learning to transcend the style of leadership that one’s personality would favor. An excellent model for understanding the character dimension of leadership is TILT (i.e. Transcendence In Leadership Talent), which identifies 48 behavioral traits within four timeless meta-factors of leadership character - wisdom, courage, humanity, and resilience. Exceptional leaders learn to draw on all four meta-factors as needed, not just where they happen to have strengths.*

Clear understanding of the five dimensions can steer high performance leadership and enterprise success, whether in a strict command and control context, or in a fully decentralized assembly of peers. Why? Success requires clear goals so you know where to focus your efforts to achieve results. Each leadership dimension has an intrinsic core objective different from the others - authority, credibility, stability, change, authenticity. Exceptional leaders align the intrinsic objectives of each leadership dimension with both their personal and organizational goals.
Distilling the five leadership definitions and objectives into a coherent whole requires a concept of leadership congruent with ancient wisdom, yet highly relevant for modern endeavors that depend on people working together, where value is provided more by brains than brawn, where people bring out their best talent because of their commitment beyond required minimum efforts.
21st century leadership is the art of giving people a genuine choice whether to follow, while making the choice to follow compelling.

by Tom Stevens (c)2008
Tom Stevens helps leaders to create and sustain exceptional organizations. To contact him, visit

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* click here for more information about TILT and the TILT360 Assessment
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