What Is a Leader? Essential Skills and Activities of Today's Leaders

Businesswoman in front of a team

Leadership is a timeless practice of guiding others in pursuit of some goal, destination, or desired outcome. At the most fundamental level, a leader is someone who motivates, inspires and guides others towards the desired outcome. And while the practices of effective leadership are timeless, the context in which leaders work vary from era to era and even situation to situation. 

But what makes someone a leader?

What is it about being a leader that some people understand and use to their advantage? What can you do to be a leader? Here are some ideas to support your exploration and journey. 

The Leader's Role:

While individuals exhibit the behaviors of leaders in many ways every day, the classic view to the role of a leader is one who articulates or describes a desired goal or end-state and forms and frames an environment where others work towards achieving that goal. 

In today's organizational settings, a leader is the individual responsible for clarifying direction through strategy and providing guidance and motivation for others to work towards executing on the strategy. The leader establishes and reinforces core behavioral values, selects the talent and provides guidance for decision-making and on-going talent development. 

The historic view of the leader is one of command and control, where the leader takes a strong role in issuing directives and enforcing their execution.

In today's fast-changing world, the leader is more concerned with ensuring clarity around overall direction and finding ways to support key resources and teams in their pursuit of strategy. In discussions on leadership today, the terms of empowerment, teaming, collaboration, experimentation and innovation are primary focal points.


Leading and Vision:

A leader has a vision. Leaders see a problem that needs to be fixed or a goal that needs to be achieved. It may be something that no one else sees or simply something that no one else wants to tackle. It might include moving to a new market, serving a new group of customers or solving a vexing challenge in a new way. This desired end-state or destination is the is the focus of the leader's attention and they attack it with determination.

Whether the goal is to double the company's annual sales, develop a product that will solve a certain problem, or start a company that can achieve the leader's dream, the leader always has a destination in mind. This is a big picture sort of thing, not the process improvement that reduces errors by 2% but the new manufacturing process that completely eliminates the step that caused the errors. It is the new product that makes people say, "Why didn't I think of that?" not just a toaster that lets you select the degree of darkness of the toast.

Edison did not set out to build a better candle, he wanted to find a whole new way to illuminate the darkness. 

Drive and Determination:

It is not enough to just have a vision. Many people see things that should be done, things that should be fixed, or are conscious of a great step forward that could be taken. What makes leaders different is that they act. They take the steps to achieve their vision.

Is it a passion for the idea, an inner sense of drive, or some sense of commitment? Whatever it is, it is the strength that lets leaders move their vision forward despite all the obstacles, despite all the people saying it can't be done, it's too costly, we tried that before, or a dozen other excuses. The true leader perseveres and moves forward.

Essential Skills and Tasks of Today's Leaders: 

A leader's core role is to safely guide a group from one destination to another. Leaders must:

  • Engender trust.
  • Provide clarity for direction.
  • Take responsibility for their team members and their team's results. 
  • Guide a continuous strategy refinement process.
  • Cultivate and motivate high individual and team performance. 
  • Support experimentation and learning.
  • Develop talent.
  • Guide decision-making. 
  • Teach.
  • Establish and ensure accountability.
  • Develop and support core values. 
  • Communicate with transparency. 

Developing as a Leader:

While some individuals are naturally strong communicators or strategic thinkers, leaders are mostly made and not born. Developing as a leader takes time, experience and ample mistakes. While there are libraries filled with books about leading, the only way to truly learn to lead is to engage. Training programs, books, and other materials are invaluable supporting tools, but learning to lead is a full contact activity. Actions you can take to gain experience and promote the development of your leadership skills include:

  • Volunteer to head problem-solving teams in the workplace.
  • Spend time serving as a project manager. 
  • Get involved in volunteer leadership opportunities outside of the workplace via local schools, not-for-profits or your religious institution. 
  • Ask your boss for opportunities to guide or lead initiatives in your department. 

As you gain experience supporting and guiding the work of others, the challenges grow in complexity and ambiguity. One consultant describes leadership development as moving outward in a series of concentric circles, with the most basic leadership activities at the center and the most challenging work of senior leadership and organizational strategy and development at the far outer rings. Continually seek challenges that move you beyond the known and comfortable areas into new and increasingly complex problems. 

Bottom Line:

Great leaders have a remarkable impact on the people they encounter during their journeys. They are motivated to achieve big things and do it by guiding, challenging and supporting others. The work is difficult, sometimes vexing and also, remarkably rewarding. 

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