Leadership Skills

Why Leadership Hinges Upon What You Do -- Not Who You Are

Why Leadership Hinges Upon What You Do -- Not Who You Are
Image credit: Shutterstock

Ask 10 entrepreneurs about the vital characteristics that great leaders possess, and more than likely you will receive 20 different answers.

With thousands of books on leadership and countless more articles, there is no shortage of commentary, opinions and debates about the entrepreneurial traits that differentiate great leaders from good leaders from the rest of the pack. Being a leader, however, goes far beyond the ability to master a trait or fill a role.

Related: Scale Your Leadership Skills as You Scale Your Company

Ronald Heifetz, the director of the Leadership Education Project at Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government and author of “Leadership Without Easy Answers” suggests that rather than defining leadership either as a position of authority or a personal set of characteristics, we should define leadership as an activity.

In other words, it boils down to what you do rather than who you are.

Former Illinois Central Railroad CEO, Harry J. Bruce, goes further and explains how many of the typical definitions and expectations of leadership are wrong -- and why entrepreneurs should learn not to measure themselves by these false measures.

1. Leadership is not measured by authority.

Leadership and authority may go together at times, but generally, authority is conferred to individuals in order to accomplish a goal, while leadership is the process of influencing others to accomplish the goal. The two are not mutually exclusive, and indeed leadership can and often does happen in the absence of any authority.

2. Leadership is not pioneering.

Entrepreneurs who pioneer an innovation, create a movement or fundamentally change an industry may be wonderful at creating new theories, concepts or products, but it hardly qualifies them to be the person to lead the implementation and expansion. 

Related: Why Every Leader Needs Mental Toughness

3. Leadership is not serving as a role model.

While entrepreneurs are often looked upon to serve as a positive role model for the rest of their organization, being a role model is different than being a leader. Role models have a demeanor that serves as a benchmark for how to carry oneself, but when it comes to leading, it is actions rather than appearances that lead followers toward a goal.

4. Leadership is not accomplished alone.

Leadership by definition means causing action with others, so achievements and success in the absence of a consistent following of loyal followers is not leading -- it is luck. 

In the end, because leadership is based on action, the only important and common capability of great leaders is the ability to understand motivations. By being self-aware of what drives you as well as what drives those around you, great leaders learn to leverage motivations to make their vision that of their followers and eventually act together toward a goal. The job is infinitely easier when you surround yourself with individuals with shared motivations.

No entrepreneur embodies this better than Steve Jobs, who famously was abrasive, demanding and difficult to work with. What made Jobs a great leader was his understanding of his own motivations, aspirations and dreams, and by actively and regularly surrounding himself with individuals who shared his vision and passion (and forcing out those who did not), he was able to lead his team at Apple to great achievements despite a leadership style that most would shun.

Taking on the actions of a leader is not easy. Because leaders lead, they are often the first to fail, a frightening fact that for many can be difficult to overcome. As well, because leaders are always leading, entrepreneurs need a healthy dose of physical and mental stamina

At least entrepreneurs can stop measuring their leadership ability against other successful entrepreneurs or a Myers-Briggs personality test. If you want to be a great leader, all it takes is action -- so get going.

Related: How a Rule Change by Pope Francis Gives a Lesson in Leadership to All