When you get down to it, leadership is pretty tricky to define. We like to think we just know it when we see it. Look up “leadership” on Google and in 0.28 seconds you have 477,000,000 results. A massive number, sure, but I don’t think it’s the definition that’s at the heart of the issue… it is the action of leading that is the hardest part.
Inherently, defining leadership for yourself means taking a look inward to understand your own tendencies and strengths when it comes to influencing and communicating with others. Oftentimes we’re thrust into a leadership role before we even realize it. Maybe a project in your department needs a head start or some coworkers need your expertise. Or, simply, your boss taps you to take on some initiative. How can you more clearly define the foundations of what it will take for you to become a great leader?
Before you’re off to the races with your next project, take a look at these five ways to define yourself as a leader. When you can define what leadership means to you, you’ll be able to more effectively influence people in a focused, clear way. Your team—and your organization—will respect you, look to you for direction, and maybe even be inspired to work within your vision.
Trust means understanding how your coworkers think and what actually matters to them. Columbia professor Heidi Grant Halvorson told 99U, “When your team trusts you as a leader, it increases commitment to team goals. Communication improves and ideas flow more freely, increasing creativity and productivity.”
Define yourself by following through on the help you promise team members and being up front about your intentions for others. Are you acting on your promises? Are you building trust in ways that your employees can see and experience?
Leadership does mean actually acting on what you say you’re going to do, but that doesn’t mean you have to do an entire project on your own. The biggest impediment to action might be your own doing. Don’t be afraid of delegation. Properly assign work to others and appropriately monitor their progress.
Lead like the folks at Innosight, the leading innovation consulting firm, and be a “Chief Bottleneck Buster.” As a leader, you’ll probably have the most on your plate. Use your position to set priorities for others and keep an eye on where process is stalling progress. Be an agent of action and bust through those bottlenecks. That will foster trust from your team (see point 1!).
A defining characteristic of leadership is working with a certain perspective on a project—seeing the “big picture” of what you’re accomplishing and realizing what’s important. Of course, you’ll have your own perspective to communicate to the team and develop a plan to get the job done. However, the best leaders have the ability to incorporate other perspectives into the mix.
Define your leadership by knowing how other people are viewing the work at hand. Encourage their perspectives! Working through cognitive diversity allows for solutions you would have never reached on your own.
Once work has been well-delegated (see point 2) and perspectives discussed and utilized (point 3), its time for a leader to migrate between their own tasks and encouraging the focus of the project as a whole. Be sure that everyone’s work still ties into the project’s main goal. My fellow Inc. writer Peter Economy stated it simply and elegantly—leaders “establish strategies, processes, and routines so that high performance is tangible, easily defined, and monitored.” Arguably, a leader’s most important job is to keep a project on the rails and be sure energetic ideas are on track.
The last characteristic of great leadership is probably the hardest to actually define. What is vision? Call it the "secret sauce," the one element you can’t quite write a How To book on. When you need people to do incredibly hard things, they need to buy into your vision. Every project has a main goal, but vision is bigger than that. It’s what your team members must be inspired by: how your project fits in with the company, your customers, the market as a whole, or your potential audiences. Maybe it’s even greater than that—many would argue that the greatest leaders actually changed the world with their work. No matter how grandiose your goal, take heart in what you do for the company and make sure others feel that.
Oh, and the most important thing not on this list? Communication. Even the most defined leadership will not work unless you are a strong communicator and an excellent listener. Define your own leadership via the five ways above—and be sure it’s well communicated to others—and you too can bring your next great vision to life.