I was talking to a friend of mine who has been studying leadership for most of his career and he confessed something to me.  He said that he had a difficult time defining what leadership really is.  I had to admit that I used to have the same difficulty.

Leadership is one of those things that you know when you see it.  It might be a community leader or a business leader or a social leader or even a military leader.  Some leaders lead through quiet strength.  Some lead through vision.  Some lead loudly.  Some lead through consistency.  Clearly, there are lots of different leadership styles.

To complicate this further, we look also look at the results of the leadership.  General Patton is a good example.  There is little doubt of his leadership abilities in terms of battle.  He was one of the most successful generals in US history.  However, there were times when his leadership was rather negative.  He once slapped a soldier who was suffering from PTSD (a poorly understood issue at the time).  After the war, his command was limited when he made some inflammatory statements about Russia.  This example suggests that leadership might not just be about traits, but it might also matter on whether the leadership is positive or negative. 

Most of us think of “leadership” as being a positive trait, but I want to offer an alternative perspective that might clarify what leadership really is.  What if we define leadership simply as “influence”?  I think this really helps us to understand the world better.

A leader can be effective or ineffective.  Sometimes a person who is in a position where they should influence a group of people just doesn’t do it well.  The group goes on their own without being influenced by the individual.  This can happen when a person fails to cast a vision or is overly passive in their approach.  An effective leader is highly influential.  They provide people with the trust, compassion, stability, and hope that they need to follow (note – credit these 4 traits to Gallup organization’s study on what followers need from leaders).  

A leader can also be positive or negative.  Some leaders help influence their team to accomplish amazing things.  Other leaders can actually stop their teams from being productive at all.  Think about the toxic employee who hates management and tells everyone else about it.  If this toxic employee happens to be an effective leader who is good at influencing others, they may lead others away from the company.  They may even make people feel bad about their job.

We think this is an especially powerful way to think about leadership because influential leaders don’t always lead in positive directions.  

In one of my past jobs, I had started to disagree with a lot of management decisions and became very vocal about it.  In fact, I gave a presentation to the entire management team locally about how the company structure was misaligned and how it caused problems.  I received a standing ovation from the employees present.  Looking back, it was a very negative approach.  My presentation was actionable and only served to rally people against the company.  When nothing changed afterwards, it actually made people feel badly about their jobs.  I was an effective leader who led in a negative direction.

As you read this, I’d suggest that you ask yourself a couple of questions.  Are you an effective leader?  If not, what can you work on to become more influential?  The more powerful question might be “are you leading in a positive direction?”.  Will other people be better off because of your leadership?  

Thinking about leadership in this way might just give you some real insights!