THE term “leader” is ambiguous.  You could use the word to refer to Steve Jobs, Adolf Hitler, the Pope, Jack Walsh, Henry VIII, Albert Einstein or Helen Keller, and in each case be referring to something very different.

There are titled “leaders” (CEOs, managers, supervisors, coaches, generals, etc.) with good leadership skills, and there are titled “leaders” with poor leadership skills, and everything in between.  They may all be called “leaders”, but they are far from the same.

Then there are untitled “leaders”, (rank & file employees, journeymen, scientists, professionals… anyone really…); individuals who possess good leadership skills but have no formal leadership role.  They may not have a title, but they initiate, communicate rationally, inspire others, seek knowledge, are accountable, passionate, and committed; most of the essential attributes of good leadership.

Added to this is the fact that the formal role of any titled “leader” is contextual.  Everyone reports to someone*.  Even the US President is accountable to the electorate and the supreme court.  The same person is a leader in one context and a follower in another.

And the best leaders, in the right circumstances, make the best followers.  They are non-defensive because confident, and thus are open to taking direction and constructive criticism, so long as its valid.  They recognize when another knows better and hence will willingly follow, even if that means relinquishing all or part of their formal power.

The reason this is important to understand is because if you want to develop good leadership in yourself, you need to know what to look for in others, and where to look.  Relying on the example set by most “Leaders” is dangerous.  Admiration and emulation of powerful individuals per se may well give a false impression, because more often than not the power they wield is political or coercive, neither of which is a basis for truly good leadership.

More to come on this; stay tuned.

*I can make a case that true leaders report to no one, but that will be for another post.