Note: Please contact me if you or anyone you know of is interested in publishing this series as a book (or in any other format). I can also provide a full book proposal and will refer you to my agent. This is from the Introduction of my series on leadership and leadership development, based on my experience as an army officer and over 10 years as a business and management consultant helping businesses and executives to thrive in the face of rapid change, risk, and uncertainty. It comes from a book I started to write two years ago. I’ve been posting the introductory chapter as a series on this blog, which you can consult at the following links:

Leadership is the same in the military, business… and hockey

My purpose in writing this series on leadership

Why is the military approach to leadership so powerful?

Chapter 1: Competence Is the Heart of Leadership

Before we go any further, it will be helpful to define exactly what I mean by leadership. Whenever I’m facilitating a strategy retreat, working with an executive on developing her leadership competencies, or just in a discussion with a prospect or client, the question inevitably comes up as to what the (or my) definition of leadership is. If I’m conducting training or teaching, I usually turn the question around and ask the trainees or students what their definition of leadership is. When this happens, I always find that the answers cover a range of individual and group behaviors. However, the common element in these answers always has some combination of the following:

  • A leader provides a vision of the future.
  • A leader makes decisions.
  • A leader illuminate the way forward.
  • A leader sets the example.
  • A leader tells people what to do, and sometimes how to do it.
  • A leader inspires and motivates others.

All of these definitions are true, and they all point to a few critical ingredients of leadership. First, there must be a goal. Second, there must be a range of options for how to proceed, and a certain level of uncertainty and risk. Third, the leader must inspire and motivate. Lastly, leaders have to lead; they have to set the example.

But when all is said and done, my favorite definition of leadership is the one I learned in the army:

Leadership is the art of influencing others in the accomplishment of a mission.

This definition is simple, perhaps deceptively so, but it encapsulates all of the elements of leadership that are salient to getting others to behave in a certain way in order to achieve a favored goal. Notice that this definition says nothing about providing a vision, making decisions, motivating others, or telling people what to do. There is no hint of coercion or authority, nor is there any indication that one should use any particular form of influence.

This definition also states that leadership is an art. There may be a certain amount of science and knowledge involved in leading, but ultimately it is more about honing a craft and applying the right skills and mindset than finding and applying the right formula. A good leader is a kind of artisan, honing his craft through diligent practice and experiential learning.

Another keyword in this definition of leadership is influence. Effective leaders use a range of approaches to influence others, from extreme “asking” to extreme “telling.” Sometimes a light touch is needed and a leader must influence by rational argument and evidence. At other times, the leader must get out in front and charge headfirst into enemy fire, hoping that the followers will follow. In some situations, leaders can ask for advice and get everyone to participate in problem solving and decision-making democratically. In others, the leader must be harsh and use threats and coercion to command obedience. It all depends on the leader’s objectives, the needs of the organization, the nature of the mission, and the skills, knowledge, attitudes, and emotional states of the followers. There is no magic recipe, and the more methods a leader has at her disposal to get others to follow her, the greater her range of effectiveness.

The final important element in this definition of leadership is that there is a mission. Leadership is only exercised in the context of some form of purpose or goal. If you’re just trying to influence others to like you or to hang out with you, there is nothing wrong with that. But that isn’t leadership. Leadership is goal-oriented.

© 2016 Richard Martin. Reproduction, forwarding and quotes permitted with proper attribution.

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