Wikipedia defines a leader as a person who can enlist the aid and support of others in the accomplishment of a common task. The leader may or may not have any formal authority. S/he is somebody whom people follow, who guides or directs others.
Your definition may well be different.
In putting together an exciting research study on the future of Millennial leadership with Deloitte and Universum, I have come up against the challenge of defining a true leader several times. Does our target leader have to manage others? Does s/he have to have a certain level of education? Are traits more important, or are skills?
For our purposes, we settled on defining a leader as someone who had been out of college at least three years, who currently works for an established organization, and who supervises direct reports. However, this got me thinking. There is so much talk about leadership today, and yet what leadership means to one person could mean nothing to another.
This is particularly dangerous when your organization wants to teach leadership as a value to upwardly mobile young professionals. Without a concrete and mutually-agreed upon definition, how will talent know what to work towards, and how will your people be objectively evaluated on their readiness and performance? It’s all fine and good to direct people to informative reading, but if those recommendations don't match up to what’s sought-after in your organization, your people will be operating at cross purposes.
In order to avoid this, it’s critical that your organization’s powers that be sit down together and hammer out the definition that works best for you. A review of recent leadership theories can inform your discussion, as can your big picture strategy and aspirations. If you are not in a position to undertake this exercise at the highest levels, you should at least give it a go for your own group or department.
Your definition should help determine whether everyone in your organization should aim to be a leader, or whether the role should be reserved for a specific type of person performing a specific set of tasks. Using the example of my research with Deloitte, only a small subset of the working population met our leader criteria. However, I’ve worked with lots of companies where a leader is simply someone who motivates others to achieve results on behalf of the organization.
It’s your responsibility to educate your people about exactly what it means to be a leader, and if appropriate, how they should go about honing their own leadership skills. The idea that leadership ability is innate is a myth, no matter how you define it. It absolutely can and should be learned, but practical training and ongoing mentorship is essential. A lack of budget is not an excuse. Even an informal development program can make a huge difference in the degree to which your people are prepared to assume leadership roles in your organization.
Finally, it’s never too late to get everyone on the same page. Even senior executives can benefit from clearer expectations and innovative ideas for effectively managing their teams.