What is a Leader? What Does Leadership Mean?

I’m often asked, implicitly or explicitly, questions about leadership. Questions such as: What is a leader? How do I lead? What does leadership mean? What is the difference between leadership and management?

I have, over the years, developed quite a clear view of my own thoughts. And interestingly I recently met a wise and experienced gent, Bernard Cook, who it seems is even more passionate than I am that there is very clear distinction between Leadership and Management. And the discussion I had with Bernard led me to think I should write a blog on Leadership and what I feel makes a good leader. So here goes!

I have in my time heard many different definitions of leadership. Some lengthy, some short, some clear and some waffle. And whilst each has merits, after many years of listening, I personally favour one simple definition that I think is absolutely clear and is a great starting point for further thoughts. It is simply:

A leader is someone who creates willing followers.

Clearly followers are people who will follow the leader, do as they ask, take guidance from them and generally obey their instructions.

what does leadership mean

So what does it take to create willing followers? Do people willingly follow the stereotypical ‘leader’? The ‘leader’ that barks orders, shouts and bullies? Not usually.

That sort of leadership might succeed in the short term, and can be effective in a crisis. But is it likely to be successful in a lean modern business, which needs a group of people to work together in a co-operative way over a sustained period? Only if there is tight supervision and control. Which of course costs money and makes the business less efficient. And actually it is worse than that. What is the performance of people working enthusiastically at something they choose to do, compared to the performance of people reluctantly doing something they feel they have to do?

So understanding how to be an effective leader, means understanding how to create followers; understanding what drives behaviour when people have a choice.

Why would you do something for someone else? Why would (do) you follow a leader?

You might do it for tangible reward – being paid, but you might also do it for an emotional reward, like praise or thanks or achievement or fulfilment. And there is a lot of evidence that suggests that beyond a level of meeting basic needs, emotional rewards are more effective.

So in my view the best leaders are those that are positive and enthusiastic; those that recognise the contributions of their team, those that create a feeling of success or mutual achievement and those that engender a sense of purpose, into the work of the team.

How does that view of leadership work for you?

Written by Bob Bradley, founder of MD2MD.