What is leadership?

If only it was as simple as following a sign

I ask a lot of questions.

Some people find this annoying, others find it flattering.  

I find it a useful way to keep conversations moving and also to give the faint impression that I don’t like to talk about myself (even though the pronoun ‘I’ has been used three times already in this blog).

I often try to make my questions a little different to the norm.   

While most people expect to get the standard, “Where do you work?” “Where do you live?” “Where did you go to school?” questions, I try to think of questions the subject wouldn’t usually get asked.

For example, after finding out what someone does for a living I’ll often ask them if they enjoy what they do.  You’d be surprised at how off guard this catches people.  Apparently inquiring as to whether someone enjoys their job is not often asked.

I was at a seminar earlier this year where the lecturer was espousing the virtues of asking intelligent questions.  Not only does this help you look intelligent (and if you’re like me you need all the help you can get!), it also makes your interactions a little more memorable.

So it was with interest that I stumbled across a recent article via LinkedIn by John Byrne, a former BusinessWeek journalist, who’s documented the ten most unpredictable questions applicants for Harvard Business School’s MBA program receive in their interviews.

My first thought as I was reading through the questions was, “I’m definitely not smart enough to attend Harvard.”

However, on second reading I noticed an interesting theme between several of the questions.

A number of questions, such as “Describe something that you should start doing, do more of, and do less of?” and “What’s the one thing you’ll never be as good at as others?” are aimed squarely at assessing a candidate’s humility.

Additionally, another question asks about the best advice they’ve ever received, and how the candidate would define other leaders they’ve seen or interacted with.  

Clearly, from these questions at any rate, Harvard is interested in a candidate’s self awareness, humility and willingness to listen or take advice.

But according to the article, these questions are all focused on a single question: Is this candidate a leader?

Last time I checked, there are almost 10,000 articles in the Harvard Business Review alone on the importance of leadership.  So clearly Harvard reckon that leadership is a valuable skill to have.

It got me thinking though; what actually is leadership?  Apparently, the definitions and concepts of what leadership actually is are as broad as they are diverse.

For example, on Amazon.com, there are 480,881 books today on the topic of ‘leadership’. 

One management consultant offered the following analysis: “If you ask 30 leadership development experts to define leadership, you get 31 different answers.”

The best definition I could find was from that bastion of commercial and worldly success, Forbes magazine, which offered the following: 

Leadership is a process of social influence, which maximizes the efforts of others, towards the achievement of a goal. 

The report’s author offered the following rationale for his definition:

  • Leadership stems from social influence, not authority or power
  • Leadership requires others and that implies they don’t need to be “direct reports”
  • No mention of personality traits, attributes, or even a title; there are many styles, many paths, to effective leadership
  • It includes a goal, not influence with no intended outcome
The more I think about it, the more I like it.  Also, the more I read it, the more I realise how much I still need to learn about being a leader.

This definition and rationale is something I’ll definitely reflect on this week and think about how I might strive towards developing more of these qualities in my professional life.