When you think of leadership, what do you think of? Do you think of Martin Luther King, a man whose vision and voice moved the hearts of thousands? Do you think of the late Steve Jobs, the genius who fervently manned the helm of Apple to create a technological titan? Or do you think of Napoleon, a schemer and megalomaniac who would stop at nothing to achieve his dreams? Perhaps you think of none of these things. Perhaps you think of your latest boss, who yelled at you for coming to work five minutes late. Perhaps you think of your favorite professor, the only guy who took you seriously when you asked for a two-week extension on your paper. Whatever it is you think of, I’m sure you have your own ideas of what it means to be a leader.
Indeed, in this day and age, there are few who don’t have an idea what a leader is. Leadership has been mythologized, sought after, and worshipped from the bedroom to the boardroom, becoming our universal answer to complex and extraordinary accomplishments or lack thereof. Every college wants to create “student leaders.” Every job opening asks for leadership skills or experience. Frankly, the word “leadership” has become so diluted in modern culture that people hardly can agree on what it means anymore, let alone how to practice it. For the past two years, I have been trying to define the term for for those I work with and for myself. Though I can’t say I have all the answers, I have learned quite a bit from empirical studies, critically acclaimed books, and personal research. Hopefully, with the knowledge I have accumulated so far, I can help clear some misconceptions for you about what leadership is and what it isn’t.
Disclaimer: For the purposes of this article, I refer to leadership in the organizational sense, not the literal meaning of “being in the lead.”