The Essence of Leadership

Ronald Reagan once said, “The greatest leader is not necessarily the one who does the greatest things. He is the one that gets the people to do the greatest things.” Seth Godin states, “Leadership is the art of giving people a platform for spreading ideas that work.” M.D. Arnold said, “A good leader leads the people from above them. A great leader leads the people from within them.” And finally, Johanne Wolfgang von Goeth once said, “Treat people as if they were what they ought to be, and you help them become what they are capable of being.” 

If you look up types of leadership, there are many ideologies that consider what leadership looks like. Some say it is to lead from the front. Others say it is to lead from the rear. And some even say that leadership is about relationship and purpose rather than direction and action. The essence of leadership may be tricky to find. According to the dictionary, the word “essence” means, “The intrinsic nature or indispensable quality of something, especially something abstract, that determines its character.” So when we talk about the essence of leadership, we are defining the indispensable quality that determines its character. 

Leadership is less about what you do, and more about how you do it. To get someone to follow instructions and meet deadlines is not necessarily leadership. However, how you get someone to do those things is very much a part of leadership. There are many “leaders” who can get someone to follow instructions and meet deadlines, but how they do that is what determines their overall ability and effectiveness as a leader. Sitting in an office and barking commands does not make for a good leader. In fact, a good leader is rarely seen in their office and can be seen among the people they lead. Rupert Murdoch once said, “If the head man in a company is not working 12 hours a day, doing things, taking risks, but also standing with his people in the trenches at the most difficult of times, then the company loses something.”

People listen and act willfully when they feel they are valued and significant. Leadership must strive to help every person feel this way. To ask something of someone without first acknowledging their value and importance is not leadership, or to give someone a task that you are unwilling to do yourself is also a lack of leadership. Leadership is about being in the trenches with those you lead. The focus should never be on being the greatest, most advanced, or even the most respected. The focus should be on helping others become leaders by working alongside them, guiding them, and ultimately providing opportunities for them to lead. When leadership gives up the need for power, the opportunities and possibilities are endless.

So, back to the original question, what is the essence of leadership? What is the indispensable quality of leadership? I believe the answer lies in how we treat each other. Just as the quotes at the beginning of this post suggest, leadership is about helping others reach their fullest potential. It’s about working alongside those you lead. It’s about understanding each person, individually, and lifting them up so that they might lead alongside you. As leaders, we must seek to build positive relationships with those we lead. We must become vulnerable and be willing to take risks to help others reach their fullest potential. We must celebrate, encourage, and provide ways for others to lead. 

Leadership is not about being the smartest person in the room. Leadership is about being the most humble person in the room. Your greatness only lies in how you treat others.

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