Scrolling through LinkedIn, I came across an article on Leadership which posed the question about the meaning of leadership and some of the skills a leader might need. As a leadership professional, I often review opinions and perspectives on the matter. This is especially true when such articles are written by those who have not exactly studied leadership because it’s nice to see how others perceive it.

The article in question was talking about leadership coaching and it questioned the validity and necessity of leadership development. Ultimately, it brought the reader back around to the logical conclusion that leadership coaching is useful for everyone – because it is. I commented on the article and gave my two cents and support. As a result, I am now notified about each new comment made by other LinkedIn members.

Quite a few people have posted on it; some good, some bad. One post in particular really caught my attention though; enough that I thought I would write this article. The question posed was “What Does Being a Leader Really Mean?” The retort was as follows:

It means you have followers. Nothing more, nothing less. Leaders aren’t magic, aren’t rare, don’t have skills or abilities beyond what anybody else has.

Normally I would let such comments go and move on with my life; knowing that such comments are often made out of ignorance. However and unfortunately, this is actually a common perception in some circles. In my practice, breaking leadership down into simplicity is required more often than not. Surely, this situation is similar. So let’s take a moment to examine that statement and see if we can’t find some clarity.

How Do Leaders Get Followers?

First, it’s important not to confuse “leadership” with “authority”. Just because you have the power to give orders, make decisions, and enforce obedience, doesn’t necessarily make you “good” at doing any of them. I could promote ANYONE into a position of authority but it doesn’t mean they are going to do a good job. It is true that just about anyone can be placed into a position of authority (even if it’s only temporary), but simply having authority doesn’t make someone a “leader”.

A true follower (an adherent or true devotee of a particular person, cause, or activity) is someone that chooses to follow someone else that they believe can ultimately satisfy a particular need. If available, they will often join a group of other followers in the hope that their collective activity will aid in the satisfaction of their needs. Look no further than a presidential election to see this truth. You will also notice that groups often break up after the perceived need has been satisfied or when the realization of failure exists. Consider northern Spain’s separatist group “Eta” which recently announced that they are disbanding after 50 years of terror.

A good way to envision this is thinking about how dictators and monarchs have been conquered by the people they had authority over. If they were good leaders, the people would not have revolted. If the people’s needs were being met, revolting wouldn’t be a thought in their minds. Yet, someone with vision, bravery, clarity of direction and a desire to change often leads their fellow citizens to battle against their oppressors. Is that rare? SomeONE had to step up; one out of the many.

Logically speaking, followers simply would not exist if the ability to satisfy that particular need was something that everyone else in the group naturally had. There is no doubt that exceptions exist here but generally speaking, this is the case.

Are Leaders Magic?

This is one area where the commenter and I do agree – at least in-part. Magic is defined as the power of apparently influencing the course of events by using mysterious or supernatural forces. Of course, magic also means wonderful or exciting. I think real leadership is a mixture of both definitions.

Great leaders have a seemingly mysterious way of influencing others or events that many will find to be wonderful or exciting; though it’s not so mysterious once you learn about it. Leadership is both an art and a science. Of course, not everyone can be an artist or scientist either. Leadership requires dedication, trust, direction, and many other things. It’s not magic but it sure can be magical. Of course, it would be wise to follow that statement up with the idea that there is a balance; meaning that magic can be used for both good and evil purposes.

Are Leaders Rare?

Of course leaders are rare; especially good leaders. “Rare” is defined as “not found in large numbers”. How many CEO’s head up your company? How many mayors lead your hometown? How many principles are at your school? In almost any context, we have a seemingly endless supply of followers and a real shortage of leaders. Not only is this self-evident, it’s scientific.

By nature, humans are herd animals and we continually look to those who can protect us, feed us or empower us. This goes back to what I was saying about the reasons people follow. This is not the say that anyone cannot become a leader, because I believe that roughly 70-80% of people can under the right circumstances. However, we must look at reality for what it is. This reality is that if leaders were not rare, they wouldn’t be so rare.

Granted, leadership can be situational. We could talk about Leader-Follower Theory here and address how sometimes you will be in the lead while your boss follows, but that’s not what we are talking about. Even in that moment though, you are leading and others are following.

Do Leaders Have Certain Skills or Abilities?

Good leaders do! In fact, one could argue that becoming a successful leader boils down to skills and abilities.

Definition of skill: the ability to do something well; expertise.

Definition of ability: talent, skill, or proficiency in a particular area.

Oration is a skill. Take a public speaking course to discover this truth. So is conflict mitigation for that matter. Communication, team-building, effective delegation, conflict management, critical thinking, analysis, problem-solving, strategic design, etc. These are all skills necessary for effective leadership and ones proficiency in them can make or break their tenure as leader. Skills often require practice and every skill listed thus far is no exception. In fact, “Overseeing processes, guiding initiatives and steering followers toward the achievement of goals”; these are not only skills but this is actually one of the many definitions of leadership.

You will notice how some people have these skills and how some people don’t. You will also notice that their success as a leader seems to match their skill level. Of course leaders have skills. Some hone those skills better than others which is why some leaders are ultimately better than their counterparts.

Some leaders are put into leadership positions without actually having leadership skills and they either fail miserably or they learn how to hone such skills to ensure success. Sure, there are some who seem to have a natural aptitude for leadership, but even this is explainable.

According to a study published online in Leadership Quarterly, a specific DNA sequence has been identified that is associated with the tendency for individuals to occupy a leadership position.

As posted on UCL’s website – “We have identified a genotype, called rs4950, which appears to be associated with the passing of leadership ability down through generations,” said lead author Dr Jan-Emmanuel De Neve (UCL School of Public Policy). “The conventional wisdom – that leadership is a skill – remains largely true, but we show it is also, in part, a genetic trait.

Not only does this reinforce the idea that leadership requires skills, it may also demonstrate why it is rather rare. Of course, I personally don’t see this as a genetic predisposition to leadership. Instead, I interpret this as most people being hard-wired to follow. Six of one / half a dozen of the other, I’m sure.

Conclusion

Leaders have followers… but leadership is so much more than that. Leaders are rare because their followers often require a certain set of skills and abilities beyond what the follower personally has to ensure that their needs are being satisfied. In my opinion, when we belittle what leadership really is, we belittle what it can really do for us.