Defining Leadership

Last updated on May 13th, 2019 at 02:36 pm


Leadership is a frequent topic in our management team meetings. We need to lead the company, we need to lead the employees, etc. What does it mean to lead? What is leadership? Last year, we picked out a half-dozen or so leadership books, read them and discussed them at our meetings. We spent some time trying to define the core competencies of leadership and how to measure them. We’re putting a lot of effort into this. I’m not sure where it takes us. What do you think about trying to define leadership? Can it be done? I’m not sure. I think the topic has gotten so saturated that no one knows what it is. I typed "leadership" into the Google search engine and got 489 million hits in 0.7 seconds. How are we supposed to make sense out of all of the possibilities?


That’s an interesting question. I appreciate your comments regarding the complexity of the matter. All one has to do is look at the plethora of leadership-related books that are available to reach the conclusion that a lot of people have a lot to say when it comes to the topic of leadership.

So, it can feel like looking for a needle in a haystack when you try to define what leadership is, or is not, within the context of any one organization.

Yet, at the beginning, let me say that what you are doing is very important. Leadership is a significant contributor to what I like to call the "other bottom line" (i.e., corporate culture). Leaders are the principal architects of the corporate culture. More specifically, top leaders show the way by setting a tone at the top.

Leaders, through words and actions, send powerful messages about "the way we do things around here." Leaders shape the culture by the practices they reward, by setting expectations for behavior, etc. From my perspective, it is an axiom that leadership drives organizational performance.

Our company spends a lot of time working with our clients on these kinds of issues. In doing so, we make the point that leaders are analogous to mechanics. Effective mechanics have toolboxes filled with effective tools. Really, really good ones know how and when to use the tools. So, too, with leaders.

In the Information Age, leaders need to realize that it is the dynamic interplay between what they do internally (i.e., inside the company) and what goes on externally (i.e., in the marketplace) that dictates success. No practice occurs in isolation. Every action produces some reaction. Leaders who understand this, and attend to it, are likely to be more effective.

Leaders, then, focus on internal integration (i.e., linking and aligning individual and collective efforts) in order to provide for external adaptation (i.e., proactive positioning in the marketplace).

In providing for internal integration, leaders need to focus on the "Three Ps:"


Leaders help define the mission of the organization. They help teams set goals that lead to fulfillment of the mission. They help individuals understand their role within the team. They link and align individual and collective effort in support of the organization’s "one thing."


Leaders clarify the values and beliefs to which the organization adheres. They set behavioral expectations and norms for organizational members. They maintain open communication channels and effectively resolve conflicts.


Leaders are measurement minded. They make use of effective systems and processes. They help employees adopt a process perspective in which the focus is on fine-tuning the methods and procedures used to carry out the work.

In providing for external adaptation, leaders need to focus on the "Three Cs:"


Leaders recognize that customers are the organization’s "gold." They understand (and help others understand) that high performance organizations have the customer as the focal point in each and every transaction.


Leaders recognize that in a global economy the competition must be a major concern. Leaders monitor the competition (e.g., benchmarking), not to do what they are doing, but to understand what they are doing for purposes of differentiating. Leaders know that the idea is not to be like the competition but to be different from them. That way, the organization will stand out prominently to customers and potential customers.


In a fast-paced world, leaders are "change champions." They lead change. They drive change. They harness change. They recognize that a primary driver of being different than the competition is being faster than the competition. They understand that to excite the customers, the organization has to be maximally responsive to their needs, problems and concerns.

In order to effectively pursue the Three Ps and the Three Cs, leaders need to turn to their toolboxes and make sure the right tools are there and that they know how to use them. This is the competency exercise that you reference in your question.

In my experience, three strata of competencies comprise leadership. These are:

1. Technical or subject matter competencies

These competencies relate to the knowledge, skills, and abilities that are necessary to do the work with which the organization concerns itself. For example, to work in an accounting firm, you better know something about accounting. Technical competencies are most important to success at the first level of supervision, the one that is closest to where the work gets done.

2. Interpersonal or human relations competencies

These competencies relate to the knowledge, skills, and abilities that are necessary to coordinate and facilitate the work of others. Team building, performance coaching, conflict resolution, etc. are important tools that create a work environment of peak performance and maximum motivation and job satisfaction. These competencies are most important to success in middle management.

3. Strategic competencies

Strategic competencies relate to the knowledge, skills, and abilities that are necessary to make decisions and solve problems on behalf of the organization at-large. Recognizing that the organization is a whole comprised of interdependent, interrelated parts allows for better judgments to be offered. Strategic competencies are most important to success in executive leadership assignments.

Let me note that, ideally, leaders should have competencies from each of these dimensions in their toolboxes. In order for this to happen, a formal program of leadership development must be offered, as you allude to in your question.

For, as the futurist Alvin Toffler has observed, "The illiterate of the 21st century will not be those who cannot read or write. Rather, they will be those who cannot learn, unlearn and relearn."

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