Who Defines Leadership?

13883835592_a7d34a378b_k Can anyone define what a leader is? You don’t have to depend on an expert to validate your understanding.

Last week, I had the pleasure of facilitating a retreat for 56 women executives in a program called WE Lead put on by the Cincinnati Regional Chamber. It’s the fourth year I have been asked to do so, and it is a great honor. The retreat is all about leadership.

My friend and colleague, Karen Dietz, and I always begin the retreat asking the participants to share stories about great leaders they have had the pleasure of working with and stories of times when they felt themselves performing as leaders. We ask them to work with one other person and give them lots of time to explore these questions. After this sharing of stories, we ask the entire group to identify the characteristics of leaders they discovered in their stories. Quickly and with ease, they shout out the characteristics they saw – integrity, envisioning, commitment, consideration of the larger picture, helping staff become their best, fair. The listing went on for some time until the group felt they had written down all the characteristics they had seen in their stories.

This kind of activity is always fun for a facilitator. The questions are generative in nature and affirming of the individuals. The list of qualities is always robust and sufficient for describing what truly makes a leader “stand out from the crowd.” For the first time, they asked me if these characteristics were the right ones. Well, I knew the bios of each woman in that group. They were all individuals who had achieved greatness in leadership. Yet, why did they want to hear that their characteristics were right?

I knew that they had the answer, but how often do we ask experts to tell us something we already know? From experience, I know that it requires the right question to draw up the knowledge, but even then, there is the desire to have your knowledge affirmed. In this case, the women executives were defining what leadership was for them and wanted to make sure they had done it well. Yet, each woman in that room was a leader. Whatever she discovered through her stories were characteristic of leadership were indeed correct. They were coming from their own experiences.

What they saw was that the list didn’t look exactly what management books say about leadership. There are those management books that talk about leadership that resembled more their list of characteristics. But the characteristics of the ‘strong leader’ who brings the solution, the vision, the drive, the motivation to make things happen wasn’t strongly represented in the list. I don’t want to suggest that the results of these 56 women were conclusive about women’s leadership styles and preferences. But, for that group, in that room, their list was the representation of leadership for them. And it obviously was effective as every woman in that room had achieved success in their career. What they had listed was sufficient for them. The items on their list were effective for them.

What I can conclude is that if you are a leader and know what you bring to the table that allows you to be effective, then that is sufficient for defining leadership for you. You don’t have to depend on an expert to validate your understanding. We are all capable of learning from our own experiences if we take time to reflect on the experiences.

We are all able to learn from reading about the experience, but what we read or hear should never override our own experience. If it is different, we need to take a moment and explore why it is different, but never should we assume that our own discoveries from our experience are less than the expert’s.

What have you learned from reflections of your own experience? Do you feel the need to have it validated?

Photo by Matt Zhang