Perhaps the shortest and easiest answer to “what is leadership?” is: there is no leadership. At least there is no such thing as the archetypal leader who, as the dictionary says, “is the action of leading a group of people or an organization”. Or it is said to be “a state or position of being the leader”. What’s odd about the definitions is they are both self-referential. The word leader is used to describe what leadership is. Therefore, it never really tells you what a leader is.
Explaining what leadership is may be as challenging as explaining what a word is without using words. Like leadership, word is self-referential.
Perhaps leadership has never had anything to do with others or followers. Perhaps it has more to do with the future you declare. The question is: what future are you declaring? If you’re biggest declaration is you will tie your shoes tomorrow, you may not have what it takes to create entirely new futures.
On the other hand, if you possess boldness and commitment, you may declare you will accomplish something so big that you could never do it on your own. For example, Henry Ford declared most households would own a car. To do that, he enlisted a host of very smart people to support that vision. By 1927, most households owned cars in the US. Ford had 60% market share.
On the surface, you may believe that Henry Ford was bossy and told people what to do. That is not leadership. That may have more to do with a person attempting to prove something to themselves or others. In fact, it may be a way to hide inadequacies. However, that is another subject.
Leader’s who declare the future also declare who they are. One of the first things they declare is RESPONSIBILITY. If things go wrong, they will deal with the adversity. If people have a hard time seeing the leaders vision, he or she will take the time to create understanding and alignment. Not only are they responsible for the project, they are responsible for how they engage people. They know their vision can, at first, appear impossible.
With that said, one way to distinguish a great leader in your organization is to look for high responsibility and great communication. While there are many people who have great ideas and can be responsible, it is a completely different paradigm when someone is responsible for ensuring understanding and alignment. That takes a high commitment, patience and responsibility to others. In no way am I talking about being a servant leader. I am saying the person who is the leader will be most powerful in the face of adversity or when things are not going as expected. They are more likely to bring order out of chaos, even if that means increasing chaos to achieve order. And they will gladly take responsibility for everything.
When you look at leadership from the perspective of declaring a future, you see a person declaring a future that has not existed. In most cases, the path to a future that does not exist is filled with unforeseen challenges, problems and breakdowns. Those are the very things most avoid. As a result, most declare what they know they can do. A leader, on the other hand, will declare responsibility without anyone asking them to. In addition, the person leading is not necessarily telling others what to do. They are more likely looking at the big picture and asking questions that no one is asking. They are responsible for effective communication for themselves and others. Furthermore, in many cases, they don’t have the answers. They may simply have a responsible method for asking questions and getting answers out of others. When this happens, the people may say they did it themselves.