What Is Leadership?

April 29, 2019 / Travis Tasset

We’ve all heard the word “leadership,” and it’s usually spoken without any additional definition. Speakers and writers assume that their audiences know what “leadership” means, so the word continues to make its way through conversations without any confirmation that everyone is on the same page about what it actually represents.

I think the most fundamental part of leadership is clearly understanding what the concept means. The etymology of “leadership” dates back to 1821, when it literally meant “the person who holds the position of commander of the ship.” That origin isn’t particularly helpful, because if we assume that anyone who has a certain kind of title or position is a true leader simply because of that title or position, we will likely be disappointed. What I mean by that is, being in a leadership position doesn’t necessarily make anyone a leader.

So what is leadership? It’s the action of leading. It doesn’t exist by simply occupying a seat at the head of the table. It’s positive action taken to create a vision, inspire others around that vision, and the management of all resources towards the execution of that vision.

Although we often use them as synonyms, leadership is not mentoring, coaching, guiding people, or supporting them. These are ways that leadership can be demonstrated, but they are not truly synonyms. A person can coach someone, but doesn’t make the person a leader, much like helping someone board a train doesn’t make me a conductor. For me, the most accurate definition of leadership is “the action of leading a group of people or an organization.” In essence, it’s the act of leading that makes someone a leader. The act of leading can and will look very different from moment to moment.

If we can separate and remove the elements of position or title from the leadership equation, then we are left with what people say and what they do. I’m a big believer that “talk is cheap” and that “actions speak louder than words.” It was Benjamin Franklin who said, “Well done is better than well said.”

“Every day the opportunity for leadership stands before you…Each day brings you opportunities to raise important questions, speak to higher values, and surface unresolved conflicts. Every day you have the chance to make a difference in the lives of people around you…Leadership opportunities beckon daily.”
~Ronald Heifetz and Marty Linsky, Leadership on the Line

When we conflate the position or the title we have with the act of leading, then we miss out on what truly makes leadership unique among all other qualities. Leadership is a behavioral intelligence that requires us to act. From my perspective, the only questions leadership questions worth entertaining are: What leadership opportunities are beckoning you? Will you answer their call?