I recently defined leadership in three sentences as follows:

  1. Leadership is about seeing systems and acting on them.
  2. An act of leadership is any activity that improves the capability of a system to fulfill its purpose.
  3. Leadership has nothing to do with titles or positions.

My intention is to define leadership as something that is not exclusive to people who have been selected into certain positions in organizations. I want to define leadership as actions that improve the whole. Such actions can be implemented regardless of position. Such actions don’t have to be grand since small improvements tend to accumulate.

While it is true that, especially in hierarchical organizations certain positions have more leverage, it doesn’t make the other positions devoid of leadership. There are plenty of other levers. It’s not leadership to complain about not having enough leverage. Leadership is finding that leverage somewhere.

The definition emphasizes seeing the organization as a system. Organizations are systems in which the parts are interconnected and only focusing on the whole will improve overall performance. Any improvements aimed at parts are doomed to failure. It’s leadership to not optimize parts in isolation, regardless of arbitrary targets that encourage you to do so.

A system should be designed to fulfill its purpose. Purpose defined from the customer’s perspective, not from an internal viewpoint. Why do we exist? What’s the value we provide to our customers? Without having at least a hypothesis of the purpose, you won’t know if you’re heading in the right direction with your improvements.

Leadership is not a personal trait or a position. It’s not something that can be given. Leadership is what good people do.