Recently I was asked: “Are you a leader?” My interlocutor was looking at me straight in the eyes as if he was trying to detect any gesture that would reveal my strong or poor leadership skills. At the time, he was holding my CV listing my work experience, achievements and management track record in his hands. As I answered, I tried not to blink in case he perceived this as weakness and answered in a strong, unwavering voice: “Yes, I am”.
The next day he politely told me he didn’t think that I was the leader that he was looking for. It then struck me that I should have actually answered his question with three of my own!
First, I should have asked him: “What is your definition of leadership?” The second question, a self-reflective one: “Can I be the leader that I want to be in this organisation?” This would have taken me to my last question, also a rhetorical one: “Why do I feel I need to mimic male leadership traits to succeed?”
I found the definition of leadership that resonates with me most in Sheryl Sandberg’s book Lean In where she quotes Professor Frances Frei and Senior Associate Dean Youngme Moon from Harvard Business School: “Leadership is about making others better as a result of your presence and making sure the impact lasts in your absence.”
I like it because the emphasis is on making a difference to the world around you (your workplace, your clients, your family, your community…) rather than on being able to perform a series of tasks. Don’t get me wrong, creating strategy, building teams, implementing plans and handling big budgets are necessary leadership skills. But for me the quote clearly shows the difference between a true leader and talented manager.
Yes, I have hired and fired people, crunched mind-numbing budgets, developed strategies and participated in high-level meetings. Did that make me a good leader? Not necessarily. You are not a real leader just because you are promoted (or parachuted) into a leadership position. Some people are lucky enough to be gifted with leadership qualities at the cradle, but for most of us it is a long and winding learning process.
Looking back at that meeting, it is clear that my interviewer and I didn’t share the same definition of leadership.
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