4 min read

How to Define Leadership In The Real World

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Leadership is all the rage, but if you're sick of swimming in buzzwords, you might find yourself asking what it really means.

Read on for a real definition of leadership - with no jargon in sight.

Is it just another corporate buzzword? How do you really define leadership and what it means to be a leader? 


I actively avoided using the word leadership in my business until just a few years ago, preferring to keep our work under the banner of "strategy and change". Honestly, I thought it was all theoretical fluff, and fancied that I was getting on with the actual, meaningful work 🙄.

Five realisations about leadership

Over time I grew up, got over it and realised a few things.

  1. Strategy has a short shelf-life without capable leaders to implement it.

As soon as something shifted in the wider operating environment, I'd get an email asking for a strategy refresh. Sticking to my strategy knitting created learned helplessness with clients who struggled to keep momentum.

  1. Leadership and accountability go hand in hand.

Senior teams are the ones charged with setting direction and making it happen. As soon as I added accountability coaching to my strategy programmes, implementation shot up.

  1. Leaders make the decisions - but they're not taught how.

My next step was to build "learning and capability" into strategy work (I know, I know. I was allergic, OK.) Beyond facilitating and coaching, I taught people the process behind the decisions we were making, and left them with tools to use as things changed (because we knew they would.)

  1. We need leaders who create the conditions for change.

People love change and growth. But they need direction and reassurance to feel safe trying it - a lot more than those in power often realise. So we started running change accelerators, bringing in people from across the business to learn new skills and apply them to sticky challenges. We sped up implementation of high-level strategy from months to weeks! But without leaders who understood their role was to create those conditions, it wouldn't have happened. Leaders are in charge of role modelling, support and empowerment - in that order.

  1. Making strategy real IS leadership.

It wasn’t until I rebuffed an enquiry to run some leadership training (my response was something pithy like “Pfft, we don’t do fluff, we actually do the work” 😬 🤦🏼♀️ ) that a frustrated client pointed out that making strategy real wasn’t the opposite of leadership – it was leadership. Seeing a better future and going there... that's what leaders do. But most of the skills we need* (perspective, decision-making, systems thinking, flexibility) were being treated as inherent traits, not learned skills.

Finally, I capitulated, and started to reclaim the dirty word. I realised that the stuff I knew about and helped people with had been leadership all along, I was just being a stubborn brat.

My allergy to leadership was mis-spent energy - it isn't the terminology that's the problem. It's that the things we're teaching people don't line up with the skills we need the most. So I got over myself, threw myself into research and built the programme people needed.

Wondering what the five key skills today's leaders actually need are? Take this quiz to find out more - and what you should work on next!

Leadership is virtuous action

A quick Google will give you more leadership quotes than you can shake a stick at. From the In my work, we define leadership like this:

A leader is someone who turns virtuous intentions into visible action.

You don’t need to be a chief executive, run a large team, or head up a country to be a leader. You don’t need to have a large following or a senior position. You don't need to be a people manager. You need to care about doing worthwhile things, and do them. You need to make decisions about things that you care about, and take visible action on them.

You need to make decisions about things that you care about, and take visible action on them.

Whether you do that at home, at school, with your friends or at work is less important. What counts is taking action on your values and making it possible for others to do the same - through your example, your support or your empowerment.

Sometimes that means creating something new and different, while other times it means supporting the work of others. In all cases, it means doing the right thing, and helping others do that too - by watching you, working with you or benefiting from the conditions you've created.

The golden thread is values. Leaders know what they stand for, and they act accordingly.

Leadership is not about people or power

If you're making decisions, taking action or leading others down a path that are not congruent with your values, that is not leadership.

Here are a few other things that are not leadership:

  • Popularity - You don't have to be a charismatic extrovert to be a leader

  • Power - You don't have to hold role, title or status to be a leader

  • Manipulation - You don't have to convince or persuade people of things to be a leader

  • People management - You don't have to manage people to be a leader

  • Task management - You don't have to manage tasks to be a leader.

Sometimes, leaders have or do those things. Sometimes, they don't. But those are not the defining characteristics of leadership. Those characteristics are intentional values and visible action. The two go hand in hand, and you're not a leader without both.

Most people have values or things they care about, but they don't make those visible to others or bring it into their work. Others have great ideas and good intentions - but no follow-through.

Lots of people are taking visible action too, but it isn't necessarily values-led. Which, by the way, is totally fine.

People are great and if they're not changing the world, it isn't because they're bad people. It's more likely they haven't set the intention or thought much about it, especially at work. They do what they need to, and focus their discretionary energy elsewhere. That's cool. It's totally fine.

...It's not leadership, though.

Good news, fellow cynics!

The good news is: anyone can be a leader , though not everyone will be. If you care and you take visible steps toward making good things happen, with or without the involvement of others... you are a leader.

So if you've found yourself allergic to yet another corporate buzzword - don't panic. You can give this one a pass.

In fact, if you think this title isn't for you, because you're too busy getting on it. If you brush off the idea of leadership, because it's the work and the impact you really care about...

I'd say you might be one already.