Think Leadership Ideas

Leadership Stuff

Defining a leader by what they do, not what position they hold…
and the priorities they work on

Who is a Leader?

The conventional answer is the person who is the head of an endeavor (i.e., a business, a project, a team, an organization, a club, a venture, something that requires more than a single person to accomplish).

Let me suggest a remarkably simple but unconventional alternative definition...a leader is someone who does leadership stuff.

As discussed in previous articles, leadership is an activity distinct from both an endeavor’s core work (the main thing an endeavor accomplishes) and its business practices (the activities needed to keep an endeavor operating). A leader, then, is someone who attends to the leadership activities of an endeavor - whether or not that person has any identified ‘leadership’ designation or position.

So what is Leadership Stuff?

For any endeavor, the “stuff” of leadership is pretty much universal. The leadership stuff of an endeavor consists of five items, components, arenas, concerns - or as I call them, leadership priorities: direction, performance, innovation, structure, and culture.

These leadership priorities apply to endeavors of every size and in every sector - business, non-profit, public, academic, grass-roots, you name it. And they require ongoing attention if people are to be deployed effectively to advance the endeavor.

When someone attends to these priorities of leadership - as distinct from working on the endeavor’s core work or business practices - then they are a leader. Regular and competent attention to these priorities fosters clarity, effectiveness, meaning, and motivation for people engaged in the endeavor. Bringing all five of these priorities into the right alignment that fits a particular endeavor is part of the “art” of leadership.

ThinkLeadershipIdeas-5 Leadership Priorities
5 Priorities of Leadership

Leaders ensure that fundamental questions are addressed - why does the endeavor exist, where is it going, and how will it get there? Direction serves as a guide for performance and innovation. Direction includes an organization’s purpose, often captured in mission and vision statements; shared principles or values that guide action; and strategy, the specific set of actions an endeavor performs that make it distinctive.

Leaders attend to how efficiently and effectively results are achieved, how well is the organization doing it’s work. Leaders of exceptional organizations focus efforts to achieve specific objectives, and then measure results. Wise leaders measure performance from several perspectives - e.g., financial and sales, customer experience and satisfaction, operations and marketing, and learning and development.

Leaders attend to how ‘new dimensions of performance’ are created. What does the endeavor need to do differently? How is change handled? Innovation is often at a ‘creative tension’ with performance - performance being about systems to reduce errors and increase efficiency, whereas innovation is best supported through experimentation that is often inefficient and downright chaotic. Exceptional leaders seek the right balance.

Structure organizes activities and drives behavior, much the way the banks of a river direct the flow of water. Savvy leaders pay close attention to crafting structures - formal processes, how teams or departments are organized, facilities are laid out, etc. - that drive achievement of desired results, while minimizing obstacles along the way.

If structure is like the banks of a river, culture is like the river’s current. It guides what people do by default, how they make use of the organization’s structures - or work around them! Sage leaders pay great attention to shaping the organization culture so it aligns with organizational structures, and supports desired direction, performance, and innovation.

Leadership Idea A leader is someone who does leadership stuff… and the leadership stuff of any endeavor is its
direction, performance, innovation, structure, and culture.

by Tom Stevens © 2013
Tom Stevens helps leaders create and sustain exceptional organizations. To contact him, visit

This article may be freely reprinted in your company, association, or commercial publication (or website) under the following terms: that the author attribution, copyright notice, contact information, and this reprint notice be included; and that you inform us that you are using the article (samples appreciated).

** ** **

blog comments powered by Disqus