Defining leadership


Recently I was asked to write an essay about how I define leadership, and how I live this out in my daily life. While I find the subject endlessly fascinating I have also come to realise that there are about as many definitions of what leadership is as there are people in the world. Equally, many things associated with leadership are also intrinsic – actions we do either consciously or unconsciously, and they end up defining us as individuals and subsequently also our style of leadership. Thus here is but one view, and I hope it will inspire you to share some of your thoughts on this too.

For me leadership consists of 4 elements that are inter-dependent: The first two are about self-leadership in terms of doing the right things as well as doing things right, and the second two are about leading others, where for me defining the vision or direction is one, yet almost meaningless without its companion, empowering others.

Self-leadership: Doing the right things and doing things right
These two seemingly simple statements embody for me two crucial pre-requisites for successful leadership: understanding what are the right things first from a self-leadership point of view, but also when it comes to others. It entails an ability to see the bigger picture, prioritise and focus when it comes to how I spend my time and bearing in mind that for me the right things are about things that create a positive difference for others, as well as helping others learn and grow and be recognised for their contributions. It is about the ability to distinguish between actions that have a long-term benefit and those that have a short-term impact, what Stephen Covey talks about when distinguishing between tasks that are urgent and important (fire fighting) as opposed to tasks that are important but not necessarily that urgent. An inability to focus on the right things eventually manifests itself as a feeling of not being able to see the forest for the trees, stress and a growing sense of a lack of purpose and meaning. Thus as I see it, the right things are essential, not only to affect change, but also keeping us growing, constantly learning, developing and remaining engaged. Not to say that I’m able to completely do away with things that are urgent and important, but it is more about a relentless focus on the right things and a frequent reevaluation of whether the ‘right things’ really are right, that prevents me from losing sight of them when things indeed get busy.

Doing things right for me is about demonstrating trustworthiness, respect, integrity, honesty, caring, courage, doing my very best and to a high quality, while not doing it at the expense of others. It is about doing the difficult things, going off the beaten track in search of a better or new way to do something, always asking why? and challenging the answers, having the courage to speak up and disagree while ideas and strategies are being debated, but once approved, showing the loyalty and commitment of making the decisions happen, even if I didn’t agree with them at the time and providing they are not unethical or dishonest. It is defending those whose voice isn’t heard, giving credit and recognising performance and contributions from others. It is about humility, by which I don’t mean to think less of myself, but to think of myself less, and more about others. It is being accountable for more than I am responsible for, to right wrongs even if I wasn’t responsible for making the mistake in the first place. These two elements are pre-requisites for my role in driving innovation in the company, where instead of direct reporting lines I influence and collaborate with a broad group of stakeholders both internally and externally. Those relationships are heavily dependent on demonstrating the above qualities consistently in order to remain sustainable, and grow over time, brings me on to the next component:

Leading others: vision and empowerment

The second element to leadership for me is about leading others, by defining a vision and being a role-model, while simultaneously working to empower others through creating structures, processes and learning opportunities, which invite contributions, others to take responsibility and be recognised for achievement and by training, coaching, being a mentor, ultimately empowering others to define their own vision and execute it. Rather than giving people a fish, I prefer to teach how to fish.

Vision without execution and without self-leadership is a bit like an octopus on rollerskates – there is a lot of movement, but not necessarily in any given direction. Equally, the most powerful change comes from empowering others, and for me the most meaningful examples of leadership come from seeing individuals rise to meet a challenge that previously eluded them, surprising themselves and others in their capability and achievement. Often a vision is required to inspire and motivate this kind of empowerment, a vision which is about making a positive difference in the world, a meaningful goal beyond simply making a profit. For me profit allows us to be here, but it is not why we are here. For me building a vision in partnership with others, is the first step in leading others, finding a purpose or goal that is meaningful and inspires myself and others to reach beyond ourselves in pursuit of something bigger. Articulating this creates motivation, engagement, and inspiration – the fuel needed for empowered individuals to make a difference.

And genuinely empowering others is ultimately what I find most meaningful. What led me to be involved with NGOs, was the same motivation that led me to become a designer – a desire to make a positive difference in the lives of others. Initially I did that through projects working with volunteer networks, empowering young people to be the change they wanted to see in their local communities. I wanted to become a product designer, because I believe that product design (which includes consumer products as well as automobiles and military equipment) is probably the single most destructive profession in the world in the impact it creates on the environment, or indeed people – but potentially also the single greatest opportunity to invent more sustainable solutions that can indeed make a positive difference in people’s lives. I ended up working for the LEGO Group, because of the impact LEGO bricks have in empowering children and adults in expressing their creativity, and seeing the joy that a simple toy like LEGO can create, when a child proudly shows his parents his latest creation, is simply wonderful.

However, rather than remain designing products, I wanted to affect change more broadly and becoming a leader within the company has been a meaningful step towards making a positive difference on a greater scale. It has given me the opportunity to devote a lot of time to developing people and seeing their growth and success gives me a huge sense of accomplishment. Equally, being a thought leader in the company, working to define the company brand framework and values and making sure that despite our explosive growth of employees from 3000 in 2004 to 8000this year, we won’t lose sight of who we are as a company. Furthermore, reinventing how we empower more employees and our consumers to contribute to innovation has been a wonderful next step for me on this journey. Ultimately these kinds of achievements are more meaningful to me than the products or businesses that have gone on to become best-sellers – concentrating on building the vision and empowering others, the rest also follows, it seems.

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