What is a Leader?

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By Daniel Bobinski

My mentor used to say, “Before you can lead others, you must first be able to lead yourself.” But what is a leader? Sometimes it feels like the people who write dictionaries take the easy way out. For example, look up the word, “leader,” and it says, “one who leads.” Really? Who knew? Look up the word, “lead,” and you get, “be in charge or command of.”

As the saying goes, I’m shaking my head. Will dictionaries ever give us some practical definitions for these words?

I remember a coaching client once asking for a definition of what it meant to be a leader. Granted, it’s kind of a loaded question, and maybe I should give the dictionary writers some slack, because the answer can go so many directions. You can have charismatic, bureaucratic, Machiavellian, democratic, authoritarian and laissez-faire leaders. You can also have servant leaders, coach leaders and micromanaging leaders.

However, when describing what it means to lead, I believe it’s possible to define the term simply and yet practically. Here’s how I define the word.

Leadership: To see a beneficial end-result in one’s mind, and then take initiative to do whatever actions are necessary to achieve that vision.

Said another way, leadership is taking steps to achieve something without someone telling you to do it. The stronger the leader, the more likely it is those steps will be taken in the face of overwhelming obstacles, or to achieve something worthwhile that others have not yet achieved. It’s not always that cut and dried, but if we analyzed the various people you think of as leaders, that definition would probably apply.

To me, it’s also important to be a principled leader with sound, moral integrity. After all, the world has seen some strong, effective leaders whose morals and principles were severely twisted.

But let’s not get sidetracked by that. Let’s assume you have sound morals and good principles, and let’s go back to that maxim my mentor used to say: “Before you can lead others, you must first be able to lead yourself.” I realize that some will say they don’t want to be leaders, and I get that. But to be successful in any role, a level of self-leadership is still required. Think about it. If you’re a parent, by default you are a leader. Even people working in entry-level jobs require self-leadership skills so they can get to work on time.

Perhaps the most popular framework for establishing self-leadership skills comes from the late Stephen Covey in his phenomenally popular book, “The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People.” I tend to view his book as more theoretical than practical, but his first three habits created an outline for self-management/self-leadership that is hard to beat.

Habit One: Be proactive

Habit Two: Begin with the end in mind

Habit Three: Put first things first

I firmly believe that if a person can articulate and incorporate the actions that define those habits, that person can strengthen the foundation of his or her self-leadership.

Let’s start with being proactive. No matter where I teach this, someone in the class always defines this (correctly) as taking initiative. It’s like what we said earlier – seeing a beneficial end-result in one’s mind, and then taking initiative to do whatever actions are necessary to achieve that vision. The dictionary defines being proactive as, “Creating or controlling a situation by causing something to happen rather than responding to it after it has happened.” Now that’s a dictionary definition I can get behind.

In practice, personal leadership means seeing what needs to be done in your life and then taking initiative to get those things done. At the fundamental level this ranges from vacuuming your carpets to washing your clothes to taking out the trash to getting the oil changed in your car.

Covey’s second habit is beginning with the end in mind. For personal leadership, this kicks it up a notch. What do you want to be doing in two years? Five years? Ten years? Think of Covey’s second habit as Goal Setting 101. What are your financial goals? Your career goals? Your family goals? Your educational goals? There are multiple areas of life in which we can create goals.

The clearer and more specific you can define your desired end results, the easier it is to create plans to achieve them. And, it so happens that creating a plan is the crux of Covey’s third habit, putting first things first. For example, if your “end in mind” is to have $100,000 in savings by a certain date, you can break down how much you need to put away each month to reach that, then prioritize your actions to make that happen.

If your goal is to attain a certain position in your company, you can create a plan for what knowledge and skills you’ll need to be successful in that role. Part of putting first things first includes taking the initiative to put those things on your calendar and then following through in doing them.

The examples I’ve provided here are the basics of self-leadership, but Covey’s first three habits are also necessary when serving in a leadership role within an organization. In such roles, the process is the same as if you’re practicing self-leadership. Leaders need to take initiative (be proactive), set goals (begin with the end in mind), and plan, organize and prioritize the work schedules (put first things first).

My mentor was right. If you can lead yourself, then you have the framework for leading others. But if you can’t lead yourself, then you won’t understand what it takes to lead others. Bottom line, if someone ever asks you what it means to be a leader, I hope you’ll skip over the paper-thin dictionary definition and talk about taking initiative, planning and prioritizing.


Daniel Bobinski, M.Ed. is a certified behavioral analyst, a best-selling author and a popular speaker at conferences and retreats. He loves teaching teams and individuals how to use Emotional Intelligence, and his videos and blogs on that topic appear regularly at www.eqfactor.net. Reach him at daniel@eqfactor.net.

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