We’ve created a trap for ourselves in the way we talk about leadership.
This trap can warp our behavior, worsen our leadership, and set back the very goals we set out to achieve. It’s a trap built of words and mindsets that can be hard to break, but recognizing that trap is half the battle.
The trap comes from the two different meanings of the word leadership:
On the one hand, leadership is a noun used to refer to a role and a position. It’s the people at the top of the organization, the ones who set the direction and keep the business on course. It’s the private offices and the big pay checks, something many of us aspire towards.
The problem is that leadership as a position does not give the organization direction, ensure productivity, or even necessarily create good leaders. Those who rely on their position as the primary form of leadership are the ones who tell people what to do without explaining why, who expect to be listened to for the size of their office not the quality of their ideas, who alienate employees through self-aggrandizement and a failure to listen.
Leadership positions are a nice acknowledgement of the achievements of leaders, and a way to single out those worth listening to. But they are not what we should aim for when we say we want to achieve leadership.
Real leadership is an activity: It is engaging with people, explaining to people, motivating people. It is giving them not just direction but an enthusiasm and a sense of momentum to keep the business moving no matter the challenges you face.
Leadership as a position is about asserting authority and control over others. Real leadership is about letting go of that control and unleashing others' energy to achieve great things.
Ed Catmull, co-founder and head of Pixar, has shown how real leadership works. In dealing with leaks from within the studio he did not rely on his position of authority to tell staff what they should and should not do. He explained the problem with the leaks, creating a culture in which everyone could see the harm that came from this behavior. He engaged everyone in keeping the business on track.
Real leadership means emerging from your office, listening as much as talking, finding out what makes your colleagues passionate and energized for the task, and tapping into that.
Real leadership is a verb.
If we treat leadership as a goal, something to be reached and then settled into, then we lose the incentive to keep improving and adapting to the times. Once the goal has been reached, the leadership journey is complete. We have leadership and the office to show it.
But real leadership—leadership that makes a positive difference—has a different destination. It pushes towards the goals of your organization and the people within it. It is something that leaders have to keep working at, finding more effective ways to achieve those goals. The end is never reached, but to keep striving towards it you need to keep learning new tools as the environment you work within changes.
Leadership as an activity is more engaged and engaging than any position of leadership can ever be. It is about learning and growing. It recognizes that position is not the achievement, but merely acknowledgement of what has been achieved.
—Mark Lukens is a Founding Partner of Method3, a global management consulting firm. He has 20-plus years of C-Level experience across multiple sectors including health care, education, government, and talent/human resources.