Defining leadership

When I was a university professor, I knew people saw me as the leader of the courses I taught. It makes sense. Professor = leader, right? However, I was never fully comfortable with this role because I never saw my role as the all-knowing sage on stage. Instead, I saw my role as a connector. I was there to help connect disparate pieces, to bring them together, and to help make sense of the beautiful chaos that exists in design, technology, business, and art.

My goal was to help students learn how to learn instead of telling them exactly what to learn. In doing this, I helped students discover the patterns of learning and, I hope, guided them to a path of lifelong learning. I served as counselor/education optimizer, communicator, project manager, and learning coach. Although, I often lead the class, I was not the leader. l was a facilitator of learning and leadership.

We talk a lot about leadership…design leadership…ux leadership…all kinds of leadership. Leadership is a word that is often used and often defined in many different ways. A quick Google search of “define: leadership” returns 325,000,000. Click on “More” to reveal the dictionary definition of leadership:

lead·er·ship
noun /ˈlēdərˌSHip/
leaderships, plural

  1. The action of leading a group of people or an organization

    ■ different styles of leadership

  2. The state or position of being a leader

    ■ the leadership of the party

  3. The leaders of an organization, country, etc

    ■ a change of leadership had become desirable

  4. The ability to lead skillfully

    ■ they hailed DuPont’s courage and leadership.

Although this definition might accurately define leadership, it does not define the nuanced relationship we have with the concept and action of leadership. For that, we need to go beyond the dictionary definition—we have to delve deeper. A definition that more fully describes the complex relationship we have with leadership is Joseph Rost’s “four essential elements” of leadership:

  1. The relationship is based on influence.
  2. Leaders and collaborators are the actors in this relationship.
  3. Leaders and collaborators intend real changes.
  4. The changes the leaders and collaborators intend reflect their mutual purposes.

The relationship is based on influence.

Leadership is based on relationships—the relationships between influence, people, and intentions. Leadership is not a role, but an action. As Paul Schmitz said, “Leadership is an action everyone can take, not a position few can hold.”

We need to help students, employees, and colleagues develop their leadership skills. One way we do this is by stepping back and encouraging others to step forward. When we move away from thinking, “I am a leader, therefore, I must lead,” we allow other people to bring their unique perspective to the problems we are trying to solve.

When we step back to allow others to step forward, we acknowledge that all people within the group have the potential to influence all of the other people within the group. This gives every member the opportunity to persuade others to follow a specific course of action.

Leaders and collaborators are the actors in this relationship.

Leaders and collaborators—every person within a group—have the opportunity to influence the directions the group moves. This means that there is not a single person who serves as the leader, leaving the remaining group members to be followers. Instead, every person is a leader and a collaborator. And each person’s role may change throughout the course of the relationship with the group. Although, all group members have the potential to influence the choices the group makes, not all members will have equal influence.

However, leadership is an act that can be performed by anyone, if they are given the opportunity and support to cultivate leadership skills. By providing a safe place to practice skills, like meeting facilitation and group critique, students, employees, and colleagues begin to understand that their ideas hold merit and their voices can be heard. As their confidence grows, they begin to teach each other new skills, facilitate discussions, and lead critiques. Students, employees, and colleagues begin to understand that they have influence with colleagues and even professors and managers.

Leaders and collaborators intend real changes.

In order for leadership to occur both leaders and collaborators must truly be working towards meaningful transformation. However, changes do not have to be implemented in order for leadership to happen. A group only needs to intend to make substantial changes for leadership to take place.

We see this a lot with projects we start but never complete. For example, a project might be a clever, new solution but then another company or person launches a similar idea before we can get ours to market. If there was the intention of real change, even if only during a period of working towards launching a solution, there was the potential for true leadership.

The changes the leaders and collaborators intend reflect their mutual purposes.

When we embrace the four essential elements of leadership, we become liberated. We no longer have to be the leader of everything. This allows us to see challenges from different vantages. We can perform acts of leadership as the professor of a course and students can also perform acts of leadership. For example, instead of leading every class discussion, educators can allow students to share a new resource they’ve found and lead a class discussion about the resource.

In this example, allowing students to share resources ensures the changes to the course curriculum reflect what they find important and meaningful. This gives students the ability to feel ownership within the course. Thus, encouraging them to engage in future leadership actions.

Enabling leadership

We can perform acts of leadership as the design lead, project lead, or manager and those people who serve in roles that appear under our roles in an organization chart can also perform acts of leadership.

We become enablers of leadership instead of the only people who have the authority, responsibility, and ability to lead. This also allows the people we work with to be more invested in the work we’re doing together and the relationships we’re building together because they know they play an important role in the working relationship.

This understanding empowers people to take initiative and perform great acts of leadership. People start to share their ideas and skills with the group. They begin to lead meetings, discussions, and critiques. They begin to encourage other group members to take a more active role. All of this combined, provides us more flexibility with our teams because we can trust that teammates will step up and lead. We no longer need to lead everything, therefore we can focus our attention on specific tasks that need to get finished.

By encouraging students, employees, and colleagues to perform acts of leadership we help our industry grow and mature. And when we help others practice their leadership skills, we are in turn sharpening our own leadership skills. When we let go of the idea that only leaders can lead, we open ourselves to a world where leadership is nurtured, developed, and shared.