A version of this article appeared at Inc.com
This article is an adapted excerpt from Les McKeown’s book, Do Lead.
In the previous extract from Do Lead, I concluded with a definition of leadership which I’ve honed from 35 years of working with leaders (heroic and otherwise), and from engaging in occasional acts of leadership myself – which we’ll use as a working definition for the rest of the book:
Leadership is helping any group of two or more people achieve their common goals.
Not very complicated, I admit, but it’s a robust definition that has served me and the people and organizations I work with well over the years.
Let’s break it down a little and consider the implications of defining leadership this way:
Leadership shows up in groups or teams
It’s a given that leadership implies follower-ship (you aren’t leading if no one follows). So leadership isn’t a self-contained, individual act – it only has validity when others are involved.
Those groups or teams can be very small
At a minimum, you need only be one of a ‘group’ of two people to lead. Leadership, therefore, happens not just in large organizations, but also in the smallest of groups: in relationships, with friends, even (as we shall see later) in what may seem like the most informal and transient of water-cooler interactions.
Leadership can happen in an instant
While many acts of leadership are the result of considerable thought and planning, there’s no knowing when an act of leadership can or will occur. If you’re with one other person (or five, or 20, or 1,000) and you do or say something that helps that group move closer to a common goal, that’s an act of leadership. A spur-of-the-moment decision made on the fly stands equally as an act of leadership with an agonizing decision made only after sleepless nights and much soul-searching.
Leadership isn’t a permanent state
In a group or team, I might do something that is an act of leadership in one moment, and you might follow it with another. Joan over there might contribute another act of leadership later on. It’s important to see that even when a group or team has formally designated ‘leaders’ (a project management team, say, or an executive board), those ‘recognized’ leaders don’t have a monopoly over acts of leadership.
In fact, as we’ll see in a later chapter, this mindset – that only formally accepted leaders can or should lead – is highly dysfunctional and produces poor-quality teams.
Leadership happens both formally and informally
Leadership doesn’t only occur in formal situations like board meetings, on the sports field or in a war room. Groups of two or more people can coalesce in an instant around short- or medium-term objectives.
Demonstrating leadership is equally possible whether you’re at a three-day strategic retreat fighting for the survival of your business, or chatting in the cafeteria with a colleague about how to ship a sample product to Beijing.
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