Recasting the role of ‘leader’

The definition of the role of ‘leader’ seems fairly clear in most organisations, but Sarah Rodgers suggests it is too restrictive for today’s business world. Is it time to look outside the square?

Recasting the role of ‘leader’

The definition of the role of ‘leader’ seems fairly clear in most organisations, but Sarah Rodgers suggests it is too restrictive for today’s business world. Is it time to look outside the square?

In anticipation of writing an article about leadership, I was struck by the challenge of trying not to replicate everything you’ve previously read, which is somewhat daunting! In preparing to put pen to paper, or fingers to keyboard in this case, I did a mental scan of the many books on my bookshelves and the internet, and I tried to recall the many pieces of advice that I’ve been given about leadership during my life. The advice has come from many people and in many contexts, most of which are not related to my work. Hence, I have purposely drawn the distinction between life and work, as to me leadership is a concept that presents itself long before we enter the workforce.

What is a leader?
In all of the research I conducted to identify the most commonly described characteristics of leaders, this is what I found: integrity, patience, confidence, focus, authenticity, passion, decisiveness, humility, vulnerability, persistence, creativity, accountability, insightfulness… I could go on, but you get the idea. Interesting that none of these talk about a role or hierarchy. To me they read as a set of sound behaviours, and in some cases values.

From an early age, it’s usually quite easy to spot leaders among us. They often excel in sport, have a knack for debating, find themselves on various student representative committees, show initiative or ‘take the lead’ in group situations, are vocal and stand up for what they believe in, and sometimes for others. They fight for what is right, sometimes at great cost to themselves, demonstrate entrepreneurial flair (you know who I’m talking about: the child at the fair selling home-made lemonade), and sometimes show compassion and kindness beyond their years. Some of them are described as natural leaders and go on to hold positions of leadership in organisations. Others, it seems, are content to follow their own paths. To each of us leadership means something subtly different; and of course leadership means different things in different contexts.

Corporate leadership
In an organisational context, typically when we are talking about leadership, we are, I think, collectively referring to the people in our organisations who hold positions of authority/ influence; the people we typically refer to as leaders. This definition seems to be reinforced when we look at how organisations typically structure their L&D programs: leadership development programs for a select few (typically very senior staff); management training for mid-level managers; and other training for staff who are not responsible for managing others. There are those among us who seem to use the terms ‘manager’ and ‘leader’ interchangeably – but that’s another topic!

I wonder if the way our L&D programs are structured inadvertently suggests that staff in non-leadership roles are not expected or required to exhibit the characteristics of leaders? A bit odd really. Wouldn’t it be beneficial if everyone in our organisations behaved with integrity, passion, creativity and decisiveness? Wouldn’t it be good for business if everyone behaved with accountability? Given the continual struggle of executive and HR teams alike to create employer of choice workplaces and high-performing cultures, it seems strange to limit leadership training to an elite few.

I think what I am suggesting is that the organisational definition of leadership is not allowing organisations, and indeed each and every staff member within those organisations, to reach their personal and professional potential. Over the last two decades or so, we have come to accept the importance of culture in an organisation’s success; we have seen recruitment practices move away from a purely technical assessment to also looking for a ‘good fit’ when filling roles, and for the most part organisations have benefited from acknowledging just how important emotional intelligence is. But still, for me at least, the question remains: is the organisational definition of leadership too narrow?

Each of us will have our own criteria for assessing leadership, but for me, more than any technical ability, it comes down to three key ingredients:

Vulnerability: It’s important for people to see leaders as human; that means sometimes saying you don’t know the answer or the best way forward, asking for help and creating an environment in which success is as much about the journey as it is about the result.

Openness: If we are open, then others will share their ideas with us; they will know that their contributions are welcomed and valued (importantly, they won’t stop coming to us with their ideas); and in the quest for embedding innovation in our cultures, I believe this is critical.

Believing: Sometimes, the best we can hope for ourselves is that someone sees our potential even when we don’t. As a leader, it’s our role to see the potential in others and help them reach it.

Refining the definition
In recent years, adding to the work of Daniel Goleman, there has been much more talk about self-leadership. Self-leadership is defined by Bryant & Kazan (2012) as “the practice of intentionally influencing your thinking, feeling and behaviours to achieve your objectives”. Emotional intelligence, or EQ, is the “ability to identify, assess, and control one’s own emotions, the emotions of others, and that of groups”. Some of you will be asking “how does self-leadership differ from emotional intelligence?” and perhaps those differences aren’t immediately obvious, but I think the point is less about the differences and more a question of whether we are selling our organisations short by holding on to an outdated definition of leadership, and letting this definition influence how we spend our L&D budgets?

It would be naive of me to suggest that everyone in an organisation is capable of being appointed to a leadership role; this is not the case. It goes without saying that while the current defi nitions of leadership point to a series of behaviours and values, there is much more to being a leader. Perhaps what I am left asking is that while it is not possible for everyone in an organisation to attain a ‘leadership role’, would organisations be more successful if they expanded the defi nition of leadership to include self-leadership and considered offering leadership programs to, if not all then at least more, staff?

You will no doubt have heard it said that leaders are born, not made; and that might be true. Some of you will know how you feel after spending time with someone you consider to be a leader. So, if you want to be a leader, start with yourself; look within. You don’t need a title or a certain role to be a leader. Leadership is a way of being, not something you do. It’s how you make people feel; it’s how you inspire others to achieve more than they thought possible. In closing, I recall the words of one of the world’s great leaders, Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, who said, “You must be the change you wish to see in the world”. I think the same applies to leadership: if you want to see leadership, you must be a leader so others may follow your example.

Sarah Rodgers, principal at iolite consulting, is a passionate, empathic and authentic coach, trainer and facilitator with an extensive background in organisation capability development, cultural transformation and corporate leadership. Sarah works with clients to assist them in making fundamental positive changes in their personal and professional lives. Visit

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