“One size can’t fit all.”


I’ve been discussing various aspects of Leadership over the past several months. We’ve explored Leadership Styles, the Importance of Soft Skills in Leadership, Failure and Adversity in providing the opportunity to grow as a Leader. This month I’d like to return to three basic tenets of Leadership. These tenets are basic to understanding what it means to be a Leader. They are fundamental as we pull together the many facets in our discussions of what constitutes a successful Leader.

Rob Gofee and Gareth Jones pull together many of these leadership fundamentals in their book, Why Should Anyone be Led by You? What It Takes to Be an Authentic Leader (Boston, MA: Harvard Business Review Press, 2006.) Gofee and Jones premise their discussion on leadership with three fundamental tenets:

1. Leadership is situational

The first tenet is that leaders become leaders because of situations that occur. The causes and conditions that surround any particular situation demand a particular set of skills and responses by the individual to take on the challenge of leadership. Think of a time when you were called to “step up” and make the decision; or asked to take the lead on a project or a new initiative. The situation demanded that you bring to bear your unique set of skills to effect positive change. Your success in these situations was directly related to your ability to bring the correct set of skills to bear for that specific situation.

The flip side of this tenet is that any one individual may not be the best candidate to directly address the myriad of situations that demand different sets of skills. Since leadership is situational, one size can’t fit all. It is important to assess any given situation and determine how best to bring the correct set of skills to address the unique challenge. Leading doesn’t necessarily require that it happen through one’s own volition. Think expansively: is partnering or delegating an option? The overall objective is to effect positive change. Is it necessary to burden only oneself with this weight?

2. Leadership is without hierarchy

Too often we only look to the person at the “top” as the leader. However, given the definition that a successful leader is anyone who can create positive change, leaders should exist throughout the organization. Great organizations that can make a positive difference by promoting a culture of leadership at all levels within their hierarchical structure. Gofee and Jones point to the military as a successful organization that is capable of meeting its mission and objectives as a result of the support and culture that produces leaders at all levels.

This culture of leadership throughout the organization begins with the leaders at the top enabling those within the organization to seize opportunities and encouraging them to exercise their leadership skills. It also requires that the leaders “at-the-top” effectively communicate the overall vision, mission and values of the organization ensuring that there is alignment in purpose with leaders throughout the organization. Without alignment individual leaders and their teams can be working at odds to the objectives of the organization diminishing the overall desired results.

3. Leadership is relational

Leaders cannot exist in a vacuum. The nature of leading requires that there are also those who are following. The relationship is built mutually requiring attention and communication to ensure that the bond is strong. Nurturing this bond is where the soft skills of leadership are most important. Self-awareness and social awareness are important EQ skills to evaluate strength of the connection and to know how best to excite and motivate the followers to become great performers.

Trust is another important aspect of the relationship between leader and follower. Why should a follower follow if there is no trust in the leader’s commitment to make positive change for the organization? In this regard, one way trust is built is through the leader bringing his/her authentic self to the relationship: being honest to oneself and to those who follow. Authenticity occurs in multiple ways based on situations (Leadership is Situational) and manifests itself in behavioral responses based on the context and the unique group relationship yet consistent with a sense of one’s true self. This is again an area where the soft skills of leadership play an important part helping the leader build the trust necessary to excite and motivate those within the organization.

There three tenets frame the discussion of leadership. Reflecting on these tenets will allow the leader to better respond to the unique challenges faced when leading an organization.


Growing the Leader within Us


“For what we’ve discovered, and rediscovered, is that leadership isn’t the private reserve of a few charismatic men and women. It’s a process ordinary people use when they’re bringing forth the best from themselves and others. Liberate the leader in everyone, and extraordinary things happen.”
– James M. Kouzes and Barry Z. Posner, The Leadership Challenge: How to Keep Getting Extraordinary Things Done in Organizations

Leadership is a verb, not a noun. Leadership is action, not a position. Leadership is defined by what we do, not the role we are in. Some people in “leadership roles” are excellent leaders. But too many are bosses, “snoopervisors,” technocrats, bureaucrats, managers, commanders, chiefs, and the like. Conversely, many people who have no formal leadership role are excellent leaders. In today’s fast changing world, we all need to be leaders.

To lead is to show the way by going in advance. To lead is to guide or direct a course of action. To lead is to influence the behavior or opinion of others. We all need to be leaders, regardless of our formal title or role. This starts with inner self-leadership and moves outward to influence, guide, support, and lead others. The process of becoming a leader is the same as the process of becoming a highly effective human being. Leadership development is personal development. Leadership ultimately shows itself in what we do “out there.” But it starts “in here.”

It would be easy if we could all become leaders by following a simple set of steps. But the journey of personal growth means finding our own way. There are, however, critical areas of personal development based on timeless principles. The distance we need to grow along each leadership dimension will differ for each of us, but defining and continually growing along each of these paths is the way of the leader.

Strong leaders are well-rounded and constantly expanding their personal leadership across these key areas:


Choose Not to Lose. Whether we choose to focus on our problems or our possibilities is a key leadership issue. When we are faced with obstacles and failure, those who can overcome adversity and learn from their experiences, turning them into opportunities, are the ones who will be truly successful.

Focus and Context. The core of my being: This is central to our growth along all the other dimensions. Our Focus and Context is shaped by three vital questions: Where am I going? (my vision); What do I believe in? (my principles and values) and; Why do I exist? (my purpose or mission).

Responsibility for Choices. If it’s to be, it’s up to me: Leadership means accepting responsibility for our choices in life. Leaders realize that life accumulates, that choice more than chance determines their circumstances. They refuse to succumb to the “Victimitus Virus” (“it’s all their fault” and “there’s nothing I can do”).

Authenticity. Getting real: Leadership isn’t just what we do, it’s something that we are, which then drives what we do. Genuine leadership comes from within. It’s authentic, and based on honesty, integrity, and trust. We must ring true to ourselves by exploring our inner space, gathering feedback on our personal behavior, and ensuring consistency with our stated values and principles.

Passion and Commitment. Beyond near-life experiences: Successful people are energized by a love for what they do because it brings them ever closer to who they are. They overcome apathy and cynicism, develop a burning commitment to their cause, and with discipline achieve their dreams and desires.

Spirit and Meaning. With all my heart and soul: What is the purpose of our work? Of our lives? Material success alone is not enough. Leaders seek within and find something more. In what is too often a mad dash from cradle to grave, we need to take time in work and life to nourish our inner selves.

Growing and Developing. From phase of life to way of life: The popular goals of security, stability, and predictability are deadly. The closer we get to these dangerous goals, the more our growth is stunted. True and lasting security comes from constant growth and development, based on regular reflection and renewal.

Mobilizing and Energizing. Putting emotions in motion: Leaders don’t motivate with rewards and punishments. Whether at home or in the workplace, they energize people to motivate themselves. Highly effective leaders boost the energy of others with their passion and appreciation. They engage people’s hearts as well as their minds. They get them involved and participating. They actively nurture the “being” or culture of the group, not just the “doing.”

The more the world changes, the more leadership principles stay the same. Leadership principles are timeless. And they apply to all of us; no matter what role we play in society or organizations.

Leave a Reply