Have you ever used a word so often that it has lost all meaning? Leadership has turned into one of those words for me. Even asking, "What does leadership mean to you?" sounds like a pompous question thrown into an awkward team-building session.
A quick poke around the Internet would lead most to believe that leadership remains inextricably tied to the likes of Steve Jobs or Sheryl Sandberg. Women and men both have it, so it seems, but it manifests differently.
So I've decided to wipe the slate clean and start from scratch to re-examine this elusive word that remains a constant in business jargon.
The first hint of insight came from a candid book called Lead Yourself First, by Vancouver-based leadership expert Michelle Ray. Leadership is a mindset, not a title, according to Ms. Ray. It has everything to do with values and little to do with corporate climbing.
Despite the book's cover image of a business woman donning boxing gloves (which led me to believe this would be yet another management book telling women to fight their way to the top), Ms. Ray preaches introspection. She shares her war stories about turning into a corporate slave, dealing with charismatic managers who fall short on their promises, and being subjected to a screaming boss that followed her inside the washroom to continue yelling, while she cowered in a stall. I simultaneously laughed and cringed.
But what do these tales from the trenches have to do with leadership? If you argue that leadership is a way of thinking, rather than a job description, the word begins to take shape.
"My premise is for everyone to view leadership as a state of mind rather than a job title. Especially in these times, it's incumbent of all of us to see ourselves as leaders of our lives," Ms. Ray suggested.
Leadership means knowing your own values and being able to translate that into a vision for yourself and others. Think of it as navigating a ship: There could be a hundred people on board or you might be alone but the main task is the same – how do you chart its course and keep it from sinking?
Rather than glean inspiration from the CEOs of Fortune 500 companies, Ms. Ray draws examples from more relatable people, such as Stan, a security guard at the Regina airport. Stan shared his story about losing his son to suicide, then his job and marriage. Despite this, he set a course to pull his life together, perform well at his role and have a positive impact on those around him. He demonstrated strong personal leadership skills by recognizing the importance of character, but he wasn't a traditional leader.
"A leader is someone who is clear about their values and applies them on a regular basis. In other words, having values and living by one's values are two distinctive propositions," said Ms. Ray, adding that leadership doesn't have to be about moving up the management ladder, or even being in the workplace.
The idea that leadership connotes a characteristic rather than a skill seems to resonate. I asked Carrie Kirkman, president of Ontario-based apparel maker Jones Group Canada, to describe the essence of her leadership, which she distilled to one word: courage.
"I've never been fearful in any job that I've had. If I believe something, I am like a dog with a bone," Ms. Kirkman said. She recalls a point in a previous role, as the general merchandise manager of the women's apparel business at HBC. When the company was sold in 2008, she believed the move gave the company a window of opportunity to signal a change to the marketplace and demonstrate how the company could evolve. Some of the company's leadership was skeptical but Ms. Kirkman stood her ground, believing that the ability to have independent thought and vision within a large corporation made her stand out from the crowd.
That gift of influence is a key component of leadership, according to Cindy Novak, president of Toronto-based Communication Leadership Network, which provides training to build leaders and their teams.
"Managers direct or tell people what needs to be done while leaders achieve outcomes by influencing others to work to achieve a common goal," said Ms. Novak, who believes leaders accomplish this through a combination of strong communication skills and the ability to effectively relate to others.
"The bottom line is that leadership requires a different set of competencies than being a great manager," she said.
Settling on the definition of leadership is a tough riddle to crack. What is missing, Ms. Ray said, is the idea of taking charge of yourself.
"A title on a business card or a placard on a desk or door does not automatically make someone a leader," she said. "It may give the impression of self-importance and achievement, however, the title alone is not enough."