What does leadership actually entail?

I’ve lost count of the number of articles I’ve read over the years that distill the art of leadership down to the 17 habits and 14 characteristics of great leaders, along with the 23 books they read, the 5 things they eat and drink, and the 9 superstitions that they all share.

It’s getting so ridiculous, that I’ve decided to add my own contribution to the litany.

I’ve been fortunate (mostly!) to be in various leadership roles throughout my life, ranging all the way from “captain of the lunchtime marbles collective” to my current professional position. The one thing I’ve always wanted to have clarified is simple – what is it that I’m supposed to do as a leader?

Over the years, I’ve come to the conclusion that it’s surprisingly simple to articulate, and, of course, deceptively difficult to do. As a leader, be it in the workplace, in a sporting arena or elsewhere, there are really three major things that you have to do. Focus your teams, motivate them, and then drive them to success.


This is really about the “what”. As any good product manager will tell you, the crux of his or her job is defining the game and keeping score. The same applies to a leader.

In order to deliver efficiently and effectively, your team, whether big or small, needs to understand what it is they are really trying to achieve. And then all along the way, they need to clearly understand where they’re at in terms of that objective.

This is one of the few areas in life where the children’s soccer team is the shining example – the entire collective hell bent on running to where the ball is (only we ideally want to be running to where the ball is going next!)


In conjunction with the “what,” a good leader needs to be able to rationalize the “why.” Your people need to have a reason to want to do the “what,” and it’s your job to rally them around it.

This is rarely as simple as “you’ll make a lot of money if we get there.” Sure, most of us work for money – but it’s a collective desire to change the world in some big or small way, shared by the people we spend our days with, that gets us out of bed before the alarm clock rings in the morning.

Ironically, engendering that collective desire tends to require an understanding of and focusing on the individual. We’re all different, and a leader in the workplace needs to know what makes us all tick in order to get us going.


If, and only if, you’ve nailed the first two, then execution can be the easiest part of the puzzle, even though it’s the most time consuming and ultimately the decisive factor. The reason is simple – if you have a team of people who know what they’re trying to do and are motivated to achieve it, then they’re going to take some stopping.

If you’re resorting to whips and chains, shouting across hallways and liberal use of expletive-laden language, then it’s pretty much a given that you’ve failed to pay attention to the “what” and the “why.”

Driving your team forward and shepherding them over the finish line can require you to play a variety of roles, and it’s critical to be adaptable enough to understand the need as it evolves, and meet it.

It’s amazing how often I have watched people, including myself, fail to do one or more of those, and then scratch their heads as they wonder why they have been so ineffective. Or in some cases, delude themselves into thinking that they were highly effective but they had just been saddled with an incompetent team.

In observing that, and my own experience, I’ve also got a short list of things that leadership is not. These are things that I have tried to do at various times, and have seen others do, but are actually antithetical to the fundamentals of good leadership.

Leadership is not a popularity contest

Far too many leaders, more than would admit it, are obsessed with being liked. That’s not in the job description. What is important is to be respected for what you bring to the table, and the way to earn that respect is by leading.

Trust me when I say that you will gain far more professional and personal satisfaction when you are respected for your leadership, rather than liked as a friend. And the funny thing is, it turns out that the whole liking thing tends to be one of the positive consequences.

Micromanagement is not leadership

This is something we would all say, and in my experience, the micromanagers are the ones who say it the loudest. It usually comes out in the form of “I really don’t want to micromanage, but…”

I most often see this going wrong when leaders are attempting to provide a “framework” for their teams to work within. Instead of this framework being about goals, objectives and constraints, it tends to manifest itself in a list of the 8 steps the team should follow weekly in order to develop their next big release. And what’s usually missing is any explanation of the “what” and the “why.”

Manage to a result, not to a process.

Leadership does not absolve you from participation

All too frequently, I encounter leaders who attempt to set the ball rolling and then walk away while their teams do the work. There is a big difference between being involved, and micromanaging.

You need to be observing, guiding, and providing continuous and constructive feedback. You need to be a part of your team, albeit as a leader, not as a best friend.

The best leaders are always aware of how things are going, and are able to drill down into the relevant detail when it matters, in order to keep their teams on the path to success.

Finally, one piece of advice that I wish I had received a long time ago. If you’re a leader, get yourself a mentor or three. Roger Federer, Lionel Messi, Sachin Tendulkar – these guys are the best on the planet at what they do, and they all have mentors and coaches. If they need the help, then so do you and I.

It doesn’t always have to be a formal relationship either. You can learn by observation, and through conversation. Reach out to those who impacted and inspired you along the way – you’ll be amazed at how many little nuggets you will find that will help you shape your own style and philosophy.

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1 Response to What does leadership actually entail?

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