What Leadership Is – and Isn’t


Coming out of a special two-year leadership experience I just completed, I continue to reflect on what leadership is – and isn’t. Here are ten things leadership is, and five things it isn’t:

Leadership Is:

Voice. A leader has a goal, has a vision, has a desire, and thus has something to say that’s worth listening to.

Relationship. Nothing can be accomplished without partners, teamwork, colleagues, those willing to work alongside you to reach your vision, advisors to guide you or call you out on a wrong decision. It’s also the way to pursue your eventual replacement, apprenticing a future leader to continue in the strong vision you jointly value.


Sacrifice. Leadership is hard work, and hard period! As my husband says, it requires our time and treasure. That’s what we give up to lead. Social times, Time for ourselves, Resources, Time with family. We have to give up more than people realize, but we get more in return than we could ever anticipate (see Blessing below).

Listening/Encouraging. Bringing the best out of others means allowing them to talk, vent, try, grow. Letting them be creative. Hearing them out before spouting opinions. The more we listen before we talk and do, the more we accomplish.


Incremental. It takes time to learn one’s role, to communicate one’s vision to others, to implement objectives, win people over, negotiate. Nothing happens overnight.

Service. Leadership is about putting others ahead of ourselves, upholding a noble purpose greater than ourselves. As one of my predecessors often quotes from Matthew 20:28: “[Jesus] did not come to be served, but to serve…” We lead to serve, not for others to serve us. See also Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz’s fantastic recent piece in the New York Times: “America Deserves a Servant Leader” — http://nyti.ms/1KSGhvL.

Educational. We learn about our strengths and weaknesses like never before. And we learn about others’ strengths and weaknesses like never before. We see our inadequacies clearly. We see what people are really made of when difficulty strikes; we learn who is truly loyal and has their heart in the right place and who does not. We learn how to handle a variety of situations and challenges, which equips us better in the rest of our lives.

Blessing. We receive more than we give. Always. The more we give, the more we get. Anyone who does not recognize this misses the point.

Privilege. The honor of leadership is usually bestowed on us by election, appointment or consensus, in modern day boards or organizations governed by a formal process or Robert’s Rules of Order. So since it is given, leadership should be seen not as an entitlement but as a privilege — one that needs to be stewarded well for the time it’s entrusted to our care.

attendance, audience, business, chair, communications, conference, congress, convention, crowd, cultural, culture, doctor, education, educational, event, exhibiting, exhibition, expertise, finance, forum, global, hall, interior, international, leader, learn, listen, man, medical, medicine, meetings, people, professional, science, seminar, show, speaker, staff, teacher, teaching

Negotiating. Many people approach a leader with a conflict, a frustration, an impasse they cannot resolve. It involves weighing all sides carefully and sensitively suggesting a path forward, whether others agree/adhere or not. But a leader’s time is taken up by this much more than they may anticipate at first, and he/she must be prepared to do it well.

Courage. The right course of action is often not appreciated, not accepted, not understood. But leaders, after careful consideration, prayer, advisement, need to stick to their convictions and stay the course even if it’s unpopular or even rejected. Even if it takes years for others to realize the value in what a leader did or tried to do, or even if they never realize it, a leader can rest their head on their pillow at night knowing they did the right thing no matter what, they did what they could/their best, and they persevered past their mistakes into impact.


Leadership Isn’t:

Glorifying. Leadership is grueling, at times humiliating, and always far more complicated than most people understand. Those who come to a leader demanding something be done or frustrated that things haven’t been done exactly as they wish, don’t necessarily understand all that is required by their request, all that a leader has to go through to go out of their way to meet the request, or all the other complex factors that may be preventing them from doing so. Most people will never understand the challenges of high level leadership until they are there themselves.

Perfect. Even with the best intentions and training, leaders make mistakes, and often. Large or small they are to be expected and learned from. Imperfection does not mean a leader cannot make positive impact. Sometimes even more can be accomplished as a result of imperfection. A leader is usually far stronger after dealing with their mistakes and failures.

Impossible. So many people think – “I’m not born with it. It’s a natural gift. That’s not me.” Nope! Mentors, teachers, books, real life experience all of these will shape our leadership, not necessarily our gene pool!

Immediate in results. For many leaders, short term effects can be strong but the long-term results of their work is not seen or felt until after they leave office. A leader cannot accomplish everything they set out to do but they can rest assured that their impact will continue for better or worse, even after their term is over.

Forever. Usually leadership is not a lifelong term, unless in certain situations. We have to make the most of the time we have. However, our learning process is lifelong. We are always going to be growing and improving if we value leadership throughout our life in every area. Our roles may change, but our leadership mindset can remain in whatever we do.


What Leadership Creates:

A quote that has stayed with me lately is that of leadership expert Tom Peters:

“Leaders don’t create followers. They create more leaders.”

The goal for leaders in serving others is to empower them to do all they can do and be all they can be, in the organization or their personal life or community or all of the above. When that happens, the result is more strong leaders, trained and empowered to again impact others and continue the successful cycle.

In doing so, leaders are creative — they create something that wasn’t there before: new ideas, new leaders, new projects or goals. And the sign of a great leader is that they are thrilled when their successors do better than they did – improve upon what they did.

Leadership is one of life’s great opportunities. Don’t be afraid to embrace it in new ways this year.



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