Who Gets to Lead?

essential leadership skills leadership development Sep 01, 2022
hikers in Tores del Paine National Park, Chile

A Manifesto for Leadership Development, Whether or Not You’re the Boss

After spending most of the past ten years fully immersed in the art and science of leadership development, I’ve noticed three things:

  • Most of the “Leadership Greatest Hits[1]” are aimed at the top levels of organizations. Not everyone is (or wants to be) the boss! Even if you don’t have direct control over the culture, you’re not officially leading people, or you just want to be an invaluable team player, you can still influence a healthy, productive, enjoyable environment.
  • Even in the most enlightened organizations, not everyone “gets it.”
  • Even in the most challenging cultures, you can influence how things get done in your own part of the world.

Like trust, leadership isn’t something you can waive a magic wand over.  Even having “leader” or “manager” in a job title doesn’t always work.  And let’s face it, most people don’t have that in their title; and if it is, the leader part of the job expectation is not very well defined.


What is Leadership?

A lot of my time over the past few years has been spent facilitating leadership workshops to help people who are expected to be leaders enhance their skills to do it well. Most of these sessions start with an activity that goes like this:

  • Think of the best leader you've ever had.  It could be at work, growing up, on a team, in the community.  
  • Then, write down: A) The specific things they did that made them a great leader, and B) how they made you feel.

As we go around the room and people share their responses - something becomes clear. None of the initial descriptors are of the things that person had on their job description.  Most often, people list things like:

  • They listened
  • They “had my back”
  • They recognized when I did great AND told me when I did not
  • They gave me clear measurements and held me accountable

They sound like the basic skills, right?  Communicate well with people. Support and encourage the team.  Tell us when we are doing well and what we can for better.  Be clear about what you need from us.

Sometimes called management skills, emotional intelligence training, people skills, or (yuk) soft skills, my favorite definition of Leadership is “the ability to persuade a group of people to do something.” 

Put another way: Leadership is the ability to inspire and influence people to do their best work and live their best lives.


Who gets to lead?

Another observation from the "Describe Your Best Leader" game: in many cases the person they were thinking of wasn't even their official boss. It was a peer, or mentor, or friend - occasionally even a spouse!

If anyone can be a leader (the person trying to inspire or influence people to action); and, if leadership is not necessarily defined by position in the group, who gets to lead?

Based on what I’ve seen in organizations big and small…that would be you! Whether or not leadership is in your job description.

I've heard stories from people three rungs down on the org. chart of horrible cultures who inspired the people in their span of care to make things work.  I've been talking with someone abruptly thrown (in the middle of the Pandemic!) into the role of manager of people who previously were peers.  I know of all sorts of people who want their work to be fulfilling and their efforts to make a difference - but not sure what say they have in reconciling those two.

All these people have demonstrated how no matter what your role - you can inspire and influence the people around you.  It's not always easy; it rarely is what you expect; but, practicing leadership - whether or not you’re the "boss" does make for a more fulfilling journey. 

A lot of current organizational development theory makes the distinction between leadership and management. If you take away the flow charts and titles - the designated authority that’s part of most human interaction – perhaps leadership means that we all have a responsibility to inspire and influence the people around us to be their best, most productive, most fulfilled selves.


Can Leadership Be Developed?

During my deep dive (my friend Leslie calls it my “Self-Directed PhD”) into this concept of leadership, I’ve been searching for a better word to describe this area of study. It’s clear that Leadership Development has been expanded and watered down a bit as the culture of groups changes.  But "leadership development" seems to be what most people know. Rather than try to change the term, I'm instead focused on finding ways anyone can inspire and influence the world around them - whether or not you have the title.

For me, Leadership Development means exploring the competencies and skills at the intersection of neuroscience, behavioral economics, organizational psychology, and, most of all the lived human experience. Most of all, it’s about how to make the best of what you already do well, how to improve what you know you should do well and add some new skills to make things really soar.

It's about naming and making meaning of the fundamental purpose and values that inspire and drive all people. It's about becoming expansive in how you evaluate challenges and decide your best role in nurturing change. It's about learning to play to your audience - to listen, ask powerful questions, and authentically treat people the way they want to be treated.  And it's about sharing accountability - being really clear about goals, what "winning" looks like, and how you'll learn from the journey.


Leadership is inspiring and influencing the world around us.

The most recent World Economic Forum's Future of Jobs Report places Leadership and Social Influence in the top 10 skills people will most need to be competitive. Their research is about employment trends - specifically traditional white-collar jobs in tech - but I think these skills apply to every part of our lives. Being able to positively influence the world around us becomes more critical every day as we leave the chaos of the last two years and begin the complex and complicated work of redefining work, community and, perhaps, society at large.

An immense, ambitious goal, I know! But most of the skills included in leadership development are actually pretty simple and already hardwired into you! A good leadership development program, then, is about amplifying those skills to make every interaction more powerful – for you and all the people you interact with – directly or not.

By committing to learn, expand and amplify your leadership skills - in the workplace and beyond - you can influence and inspire the people around you in big and small ways…doing your best work while living your best life, whether or not you're in charge.


What's your leadership practice?

There is so much out there in the leadership development space – writing, research, and programming about how to be a great leader.  The secret is that none of this is rocket science.  Most of the skills and behaviors and ways of thinking leaders need are hard-wired into all humans.  With a little awareness, focus and practice anyone can amplify those skills!

Here are three ways to get started right now:

Let me help!

Lead From Wherever You Are is also virtual community, classroom, lab, and sandbox for anyone who wants to expand their influence in the many roles they play - at work, at home, in the community. In this space, we will explore ideas and develop leaderships skills through:


Explore on your own.

1The Leadership Greatest Hits include works by Simon Sinek, Stephen Covey, Patrick Lencioni, Jim Collins– just to name a few.

Want to explore the ways you can lead from wherever you are?  Schedule a free, 30-minute spark session and let's talk about how to turn your strengths into superpowers!

Book a Spark Session Now

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