What Is a Leader and What Do They Really Do?

This will be the first of a series of three articles where I will discuss the various concepts of leadership and attempt to bring some clarification on that very elusive subject, sometimes the “flavor of the month” word called leadership. The first article will explore the diverse topic of what leadership really is. The second article will examine the topic of servant leadership and the third will discuss corporate culture, addressing values, ethics and trust.

What is a leader and what do they really do? To understand the magnitude of leadership, one must first understand some facts and trivia that surround leadership. There are well over 20,000 books and articles written about leadership most of which, in my opinion, are worthless. I say this because some of these authors have never had the necessary experience of leading a mid to large size organization or had the enormous responsibility of leading people. In an article written a few years ago in Fortune Magazine, only 8% of Fortune 1000 executive directors rated their leadership capacity as fair to good. It has been said that we are a global environment of over-managed and under-led people. Companies are continually losing their top talent to retirement or other reasons without the proper processes for succession. By and large, executives make poor promotion decisions because of self interests, making decisions too fast, putting the wrong people in the wrong positions because the objective information is not available or they ignore it and for a multitude of various other reasons. It is my belief that few senior management decisions are more important than selecting the right middle management with the right development plans. A strong middle management is the heart of an organization.

Ok, what is a leader and what do they really do? There are numerous definitions of leadership. Dwight D. Eisenhower, the 34th President of the United States and a scholar of Leadership said that leadership is “…the art of getting someone else to do something you want done because he or she wants to do it.” Leadership, being both an art and a science, gives leadership the mystery of effective execution. Colin Powell, who had a long history of successful experience in the U.S. military and the U.S. government and who was also a learned scholar of leadership, said that, “Leadership is the art of accomplishing more than the science of leadership says is possible.” The definition that I use the most is that leadership is an influence relationship among leaders and followers who intend real changes and outcomes that reflect their shared purposes. The leader’s job is to create conditions for the organization to be effective. Leadership is about getting results through others across a variety of conditions by building a cohesive, results-oriented organization. An effective leader builds interpersonal relationships in which others comply because they want to, not because they have to. Leadership is all about people and how the leader creates an organizational culture of influencing those people to accomplish the necessary results and focus the right resources towards doing so. As Colin Powell said, "By only attracting the best people will you accomplish anything."

Over my years of practicing and teaching leadership, I have come to believe that leadership involves seven important functions. Leaders:

  1. Create a vision. They develop a picture, a dream if you will, of an ambitious, desirable goal for the organization.
  2. Develop a strategy to accomplish that vision.
  3. Communicate the vision/strategy to the entire organization.
  4. Align people in the right positions to successfully execute the vision.
  5. Insure that the development of the people is on- going so that the strength of the organization grows.
  6. Motivate and inspire. They are the cheerleaders/role models of the vision.
  7. Induce change to insure the organization continually grows and stays competitive.

Leadership begins with the willingness to embrace people, embrace responsibility, place the needs of others/the organization above their own, to listen- listen –listen and lastly to never stop communicating. It is impossible to over-communicate, and communication is the glue of an organization and the responsibility of the leader to encourage it.

As Jim Collins said in his book, Good To Great, an effective leader catalyzes his/her commitment to and vigorous pursuit of a clear and compelling vision, stimulating higher performance standards. He went on to say that an effective leader builds enduring greatness through a paradoxical blend of personal humility and professional will. They channel their ego needs away from themselves and into the larger goal of building a great company. Effective leaders are a study in duality: modest and willful, humble and fearless.

An effective leader has to have an enormous amount of self-awareness and confidence. Leaders need to know how to evaluate their effect on others through self-regulation and have a high sense of empathy in terms of understanding others. They need to have an inner drive, a high sense of urgency and they need to be sociable, establishing effective relationships through networking and influence.

What is leadership and what do leaders really do? Leadership is all about integrity, unquestionable ethics, self-confidence, communication, perseverance and passion. Leadership is a life long-journey, never a destination; it is about continual learning. Leaders establish a culture that encompasses all of the above.

In closing, a quote that has inspired me over the years and brought some clarity to what are leaders and what do they really do comes from a source I cannot recall after so many years, but it says, "A true leader has the confidence to stand alone, the courage to make tough decisions and the compassion to listen to the needs of others. He/she does not necessarily set out to be a leader but becomes one by the quality of his/her actions and the integrity of his/her intent. In the end, leaders are much like eagles... they don't flock; you find them one at a time."