Leadership Is…

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Leadership is the art of influencing human behaviour so as to achieve the mission in the manner desired by the leader. That is the definition of leadership that I learned at the age of 13 as an Air Cadet (it was the Canadian Forces standard definition at the time). I have never needed another.

This is an important point to me because I often feel that there is an entire industry which purports to unlock the secrets of leadership. With some very notable exceptions (such as the redoubtable Simon Sinek) the advice does not seem to me to be worth very much.

To me, this is because all of that advice tries to make the topic more complicated than it needs to be. This is done to obscure one central fact. Leadership is hard. Good leadership is also selfless. So, real leadership is a challenge to the leader. If you make leadership easy, you are doing it wrong. Now, people in the business of giving advice (of which, admittedly, I am one) have a hard time looking at their audience and saying: “Have you ever thought the problem might be you?” But, in the case of leaders who are seeking to be effective – this is often an inconvenient truth.

So, with that in mind, I would like to deconstruct the definition of leadership and point out how almost all the elements of it depend on a commitment by the leader to focus beyond themselves.

Let’s start with “Leadership is the art…”. This is important phraseology. The equivalent definition of “Management” in the Canadian Forces began with the words “Management is the science…” Defining something as a science implies that it can be studied and learned. That it is a skill that can be developed and evaluated objectively against known and well-defined standards. 

Defining something as an Art, on the other hand, implies that it can only be developed through practice. No matter how adept you are at an art form, you can only develop and retain proficiency through practice.Further, that practice will almost certainly involve a lot of trial and error. Which means that you will only get more proficient in your art if you are prepared to admit that most of the time you are not as proficient as you could be – and so you continually seek to improve.

Leadership is like that. I remember one of the main teaching points in those early lectures about leadership was the fact that “good leaders seek and accept responsibility.” The only way to become a more effective leader is to always look for ways (small and large) to exercise your leadership.

Which brings us to the next part of the definition: “The art of influencing human behaviour.” Note the lack of words which imply coercion in this definition. There is absolutely no correlation between leadership and power – other than the power to influence others. You do not lead others by bending them to your will.  You do not lead by forcing them to do what you say. 

True leadership comes from understanding what motivates those you seek to lead – and appealing effectively to that motivation.  Sometimes a leader may need to be authoritative or directive. In urgent or stressful situations, it may be very welcome to have a leader who is confident enough to give direction, to get things moving, and to take the responsibility for making the decisions.  This can leave others the freedom to focus on their tasks without becoming paralyzed by analyzing the potential consequences.

At other times, that style of leadership will be wholly inappropriate. Sometimes a good leader allows others to have good ideas, while also creating room for them to test them out without the fear that they will be blamed if their ideas don’t work out as well as they had hoped. Sometimes a good leader just needs to encourage others to keep focused on the goal, to have confidence in their abilities, and to leave them the freedom to find their own way there.

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In other words, there are many, many ways to lead. Great leadership consists of applying the right method to a given situation and to a given set of people. Anyone who practices some form of “my way or the highway” is not a leader. They may seem like a leader in certain very specific situations, but they will ultimately fail when taken out of their very narrow comfort zone.

So now let’s look at “So as to achieve the Mission in the manner desired by the leader.” Again, notice the very specific phrasing.  While the leader is expected to set the way in which the goal is achieved, the leader must serve the mission, and not the other way around. In other words, leadership is not about getting what you want. Leadership is about getting what is needed. This is why leadership must be selfless. Leadership is not about serving your interests. It is about using your skills to serve the interests of The Mission. Now, in a business context you could replace “Mission” with “Goal” or “Objective” but the sense remains the same.

The difference between business and the military is that while a military leader will almost certainly be given their mission with very little discretion to debate or develop it, a business leader almost certainly has some role in setting Goal or the Objective. But that may not be as much of difference as it appears on the face of it.

If you are filling your role as a business leader, then you will be selecting your goals and objectives based on what the world gives you and on what your business needs in that situation. While it may appear that you have a choice, understanding that you must choose what is right for the business – as opposed to what is right for you – will necessarily constrain the available choices significantly.  In a sense, in military or business, you are left getting your orders from higher authority.  In the military that is the next person up the chain of command.  In business, that higher authority is reality.

Similarly, if you are truly a leader you will be spending your time understanding your team – those you lead – and understanding their motivations. And I mean really understanding their motivation – which can be very different than what they say they want. In addition to hearing what they want to tell you, you also must understand “what makes them tick,” how they are “wired.” Especially when this wiring is different than yours.

The important thing to note is that none of that has anything to do with what you want. As a leader you do not get to choose what the job is. You don’t get to choose what motivates your team. The only thing you get to just choose is how to bring those two things together. 

Jim Collins in his book “Good To Great” summarizes it well when he says (and I am paraphrasing here) that great leaders “look out the window to give credit, and look in the mirror to take responsibility.”

In other words, as a leader you will never accomplish anything yourself. But if you are good at it – you will help others achieve success in which you share.

As I said, it’s not that hard to understand. It’s just hard to do.

About Iain Christie

Founder and CEO at SideKickSixtyFive Consulting and host of the Terranauts podcast. Iain is a seasoned business executive with deep understanding of the space business and government procurement policy. Iain worked for 22 years at Neptec including as CEO. He was a VP at the Aerospace Industries Association of Canada, is a mentor at the Creative Destruction Lab and a visiting professor at the University of Ottawa's Telfer School of Management.

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