Who All Gets to Be a Leader?

December 1, 2014

Who gets to be a leader? From time to time, I hear an someone admonish a group of individuals by saying “you are all leaders.” Other times, I see organizational messaging indicating “leadership” is reserved for a small group of individuals who occupy certain positions. Which is it? Are we all leaders, or only some of us?

And how do we get more leaders in our organizations?

In order to figure that out, we’ve got to start by defining what leadership is begin with.

Chess Leader

Let’s Define Leadership

If we all sat down together and tried to answer the question: “what makes someone a leader?” we’d probably be at it for quite a while. Whenever I ask a group of managers, inevitably they respond with notions such as: someone who sets vision, communicates well, behaves ethically, executes, and a wide variety of other responses. They’re all good answers, but if leadership entails everything, how can we actually differentiate between a leader and a non-leader?

I’ve come to use a simple definition of leadership. Here it is:

A leader is someone who: has influence and creates change.

That’s it. That’s how we can tell who the leaders are. Here’s the good news: this is an all-inclusive list. Not everyone is a leader, but everyone can become one by using the influence they have to create positive change right where they are. That means we can have leaders behind the counter just like we can in the C-suite. We can have leaders on the front lines as well as leaders at headquarters. Not everyone has the same level of influence or scope for change. But everyone can do something. Leaders make the difference.

Who Do Leaders Lead?

So who do leaders lead? These are the three groups:

Self: It may sound odd to say that leaders lead themselves, but that’s where it begins. Leadership begins by being proactive and accepting the responsibility to create change and deliver the results one’s self is responsible for. Leaders take the responsibility to know their strengths and weaknesses and make a personal development plan to increase their growth and thereby their performance – without waiting for someone else to do it for them.

Others: After leaders accept responsibility for themselves, they can accept responsibility for others. This doesn’t necessarily mean managing others, but simply playing a role in using their influence to create positive changes for others. Team members are the best places to begin. Everyone has different strengths, personality styles, knowledge, skills and experiences. Leaders recognize and maximize opportunities to use theirs to benefit others. (My whole ebook Trusted Leadership Advisor focuses on how anyone can do this). And if you don’t have anyone on your team you can develop, find a way to develop someone else on another team.

Organization: Did you ever stop to think that each person in the organization can do something to make things better for everyone? Obviously, major decisions from the top can drastically change the organizational reality for each person. But one process improvement, enhancement or good idea that is shared and implemented can accomplish the same. Where someone is doesn’t matter. What they make of things does.

It’s not enough to tell your followers that all of them are leaders and then move on. We’ve got to let them know what a leader looks like and then who they can lead – and how. If you think only the folks at the top of your organization are leaders, that’s all you’ll get. But if you build from the ground up, tomorrow’s leaders will start coming to you today.

Nathan Magnuson is a leadership consultant, coach, trainer and thought leader.  Receive his ebook Trusted Leadership Advisor by subscribing to his website or   follow him on Twitter.