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How do you define leadership?

If you are like most of my readers, you are an executive, an entrepreneur or an emerging leader. And you are serious about your professional growth, consuming all kinds of content: books, blogs, courses and everything in between.

When you read a blog about leadership you should expect an answer to the question that I pose: how do you define leadership?

So let’s begin with the definition that I use and the one you will see on this blog.

James MacGregor Burns, historian and presidential biographer, once called leadership “one of the most observed and least understood phenomena on earth.”

The late Warren Bennis, one of the pioneers of leadership studies, seconds Burns’ observation that leadership has been well observed but not easily understood:

“Decades of academic analysis have given us more than 350 definitions of leadership. Literally, thousands of empirical investigations of leaders have been conducted in the last 75 years alone, but no clear and unequivocal understanding exists as to what distinguishes leaders from non-leaders and what distinguishes effective leaders from ineffective leaders.” – Warren Bennis and Burt Nanus

So you are not alone if you are a bit perplexed on what leadership is. It’s always been a hot topic in business, politics and society at large. And when there is a crisis there’s always a cry for leadership, a hunger and craving for someone to get leadership right.

A number of years ago I had a member of my team ask me about the definition of leadership. He recently had received a promotion to be a team leader. He made that important career transition from being an individual employee to leading others for the first time. He asked me, quite directly, ‘what is this thing called leadership all about?’

Good question.

I reflected on all the concepts I had learned and heard about leadership since I began my transition to the business world [find out more about my background here]. I learned there were a number of definitions of leadership frequently used by business people, coaches and academics. There was transformational vs transactional leadership, situational leadership, charismatic leadership, leadership traits, the moral leader, the servant leader, male vs female leadership and many others.

There are a lot of insights and partial truths to all these definitions. But as I reflected on my leadership experience at West Point and the military I realized something was missing.

There are really three components to leadership. These three parts do not only reflect leadership concepts but are actually worldviews.  Integrating these three components, I discovered, actually represents leadership growth.

Let me explain.

The wisdom of the world’s greatest leadership training organization

Here is an interesting conversation that happened several years ago …

“Three years ago, in the midst of the Internet bubble, our dinner party at the landmark Four Seasons restaurant in Manhattan listened raptly to Peter Drucker, the Father of Modern Management, and Jack Welch, the then widely admired CEO of America’s most admired company. The question before us: Who does the best job developing leaders?

To my surprise, the usual suspects so often cited for finding the training leaders didn’t figure – not the Harvard Business School, or Goldman Sachs, or McKinsey & Company, or General Electric, or IBM or Procter & Gamble. The enthusiastic choice of both of these management legends was the United States military.” –   Richard E. Cavanagh, from the Forward of the book “Be, Know, Do – Leadership the Army Way

Having begun my career in the military, of course I am biased. But when the world’s foremost management thinker and one of the greatest CEO’s talk about leadership development we should listen. That exchange that I read led me to reflect on the actual definition of leadership I was taught in the military:

‘’Leadership is the process of influencing people by providing purpose, direction and motivation to accomplish the mission and improve the organization.” – Army Leadership Doctrine (ADRP 6-22)

What is this blog about? – Wisdom for your Leadership Growth Journey

Reflecting on this insight of leadership wisdom, I saw there were three important parts of leadership in the US Army’s definition:

  • influence: providing inspiration and direction through a leader’s character
  • accomplishing the mission: through a leaders’ competence
  • improving the organization: through a leader’s ability to guide and direct growth through change

Now let me add another C – consciousness. More than an ideal definition of leadership, inherent in this view is the concept of growth: evolving your worldview. For me consciousness represents the highest level of leadership: the most inclusive and the most effective.

To attain this level of consciousness, the leader has to follow a path of self-mastery and do the work, practices, to facilitate this growth.

This blog is my wisdom and the wisdom I have learned from others to elevate your worldview, increase your effectiveness and become an ideal 21st century leader.

What is the ‘ideal’ 21st century leader?

Today’s ideal leader is whole – holistic and integrated. They work on three main areas:

  1. Leadership as elevated consciousness. My take is that the most evolved leadership today in the 21st century is a level of consciousness that ‘transcends and includes’ – to use the philosopher Ken Wilber’s expression – character, competence and change.

We are at a unique moment in time where we have all the wisdom of history available to us. Our challenge, as we grow our awareness and take in more perspectives, is to integrate the ancient, modern and post-modern wisdom of leadership experience.

  1. Understand the journey of self-mastery Built into my understanding of leadership is the idea of personal growth and self-mastery. Today’s leader discovers that the map of the terrain for growth and mastery is known. The path of growth has been revealed by history’s heroes: real and mythic. Our job is to study the map and master the path that all great leaders have taken before us.

Why is this important? We can’t grow as leaders, or in any endeavor, without knowing the process.

  1. Practice to facilitate growth. We have to do the work to grow, to evolve and become a better leader. Reflecting again on Warren Bennis’ wisdom, he wrote years ago that ‘the process of becoming a leader is similar to becoming a fully integrated human being.’

Here we learn to grow and develop in our four areas as a human being: body, mind, emotion and spirt.

We focus on practice, ‘an intentional activity that you repeat consciously and regularly for the purpose of health and growth,’ according to Ken Wilber.

The Leadership Growth Series – some of my best posts

You are welcome to dip your toes with any of the articles on my blog. But to get the best experience I recommend you begin here. I’ve created a Leadership Growth Series which serves as a foundation for the entire blog. These are some of my best posts:

  1. Character: The leaders’ ability to Influence, inspire and build trust by who they are. There are many ways to influence people. You can guide, direct, prioritize, incentivize and order someone around. But I’ve learned through my experience that most effective and authentic way to influence others is through your example, through who you are. In other words, your character.
  1. Competence: The ability of the leader to effectively accomplish the mission. “Leadership is more than just looking the part. Ultimately, you’ve got to get results. That’s what accomplishing the mission is all about.” This is the guidance of the trainers from the US Army in the book Be, Know, Do. Here we’ll look at communicating intent, developing a strategy, execution and culture.
  1. Change: The leader’s ability to improve an organization through change and growth. “Growth is recurring change,” writes author and professor Edward Hess. It’s important for leaders to understand the true nature of change. The implication for leaders is that to improve the organization, to help it grow, you need to direct and embrace change.
  1. Consciousness – Elevating your world view to improve your leadership effectiveness. Rather than excelling at one level of leadership, the 21st business leader will need to “transcend and include,” as philosopher Ken Wilber wrote, multiple worldviews. As leaders reach higher levels of consciousness, of awareness they experience a new mindset; a truly integrated and balanced approach to leadership.
  1. Mastery – Understand the journey of transformation and growth. In this post, we will look closely at what personal growth is. We will be looking at the ultimate expression of growth – mastery – and the series of transformations along this journey.

6. Practice – The leader’s workout to integrate all four cornerstones of humanity to support your growth. Finally, we will review how leadership growth is really personal growth. What are the specific practices for us to do facilitate this growth? We will reviewing integrating body, mind, emotions and spirt at practices at the edges of your days. This is my largest piece so I’ve created a separate e-book for you. Sign up to receive automatic email updates and I’ll send you the e-book

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And as a thank you, I’ve got a special gift for you – The Leader’s Workout ebook!.

I look forward to connecting with you.

To your leadership growth!