Leadership Is A Choice

February 13, 2012

I’ve been chewing on the concept of leadership a lot lately. I think leadership is more a property of a group process than a characteristic of a person. I acknowledge that personal characteristics might make some more likely to engage in the process, or more likely to be perceived as successful once engaged in the process; nevertheless, leaders are those that engage in the process of leadership. “Am I practicing leadership?” is a more important and less ambiguous question to me than “am I the leader?”

We probably don’t need a new way to think about leadership, but I’m going to offer one anyway. I borrow heavily from the writings of Joseph Rost, but with some twists that I’m sure are not entirely unique. Here it is:

Leadership is manifest when people assume responsibility for the choice to engage with others and use their influence to pursue substantive changes that enhance a shared purpose.

To the extent you intentionally choose to engage in this process of progress with good-faith effort, you are practicing leadership regardless of your assigned position, title, or role. To the extent you choose to derail this process, discourage others from engaging, or otherwise resist meaningful change in yourself or your group, you are not exhibiting leadership.

What do you think? Please share your thoughts in the comment section below!

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Comments (20)

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  1. Bret, I think you are spot on! I’ve always believed that the foundation of good (or even great) leadership is the quality of the relationships formed. Its a group thing for sure – if you aren’t attentive to the relationships, there is no leadership.

    Bret L. Simmons Reply:

    So true, MJ, without good relationships there is no leadership. I’ve worked in too many groups that just manage to survive. It sucks. Thanks for sharing your thoughts! Bret

  2. Another great post. It is all about people, therfore relationships. If there is no relationship fostered there can be no shared purpose to enhance.

    Bret L. Simmons Reply:

    Concur, Denise. Thanks for sharing! Bret

  3. Jesse says:

    My experience has been that a leader’s performance is vastly more potent than a team member’s performance. I experienced this at company with good existing relationships and a terrible leader came in. The team’s relationships were unable to suffer the leader and all productivity dropped.

    Bret L. Simmons Reply:

    Great example, Jesse. I’d say your example shows that leadership suffered because of one person in the group. The “leader” can definitely have an impact on the group, but can never be an excuse for bad leadership. Thanks for sharing! Bret

  4. davidburkus says:

    Bret, interesting points. I wonder though, if choice is the determining factor. Many people feel they HAVE to lead. In addition, what of our terrible celebrities who choose to live their own lifestyle, setting a poor example and neglecting responsibility, but who lead people astray nonetheless.

    (I recognize the slippery slope I’ve just gotten into by acknowledging Snooky as a leader.)

    Bret L. Simmons Reply:

    I still think that is a choice, David, just a different attribution. Do celebs really lead people astray? I think people choose to be stupid. Thanks for sharing! Bret

    davidburkus Reply:

    I think celebs definitely model idealized influence, even if those who idealize them are stupid. Sad world I suppose.

    Bret L. Simmons Reply:

    everyone is modeling something everyday in the choices they make about how to behave. Celebs do have a bigger stage, but they only have influence if we allow them to. Thanks!

  5. Greg Blencoe says:

    I really like the idea of redefining what a leader is or who is practicing leadership.

    I don’t think I would go so far to say that the typical definition of a leader in business is a myth. But I definitely think that it is often a caricature.

    In most situations that I have observed, it is much less of one person “leading” a bunch of followers and much more of a group process where there might be one person who has the most influence but many people step up at different times.

    I like that your focus on “Am I practicing leadership?” gives a lot more credit to the other employees who are participating in the process.

    Bret L. Simmons Reply:

    Love what you’ve added to this conversation, Greg. Thanks for sharing! Bret

  6. Bret, I completely agree! Leaders are not necessarily born. I myself have chosen to learn more about what it means to lead and to encorporate it into my life. The fact that it is a choice is what sets leaders apart–and its not always easy to “be the leader,” it takes courage. I like “Am I practicing leadership?” A great way to question if I am acting how I want and leading myself first.

    Bret L. Simmons Reply:

    It does take courage to make a choice to participate in the process of moving yourself and your group forward. Thanks for sharing your thoughts, Caitlin! Bret

  7. Ron Flaming says:

    Really like the discussion. Bret, does it move the conversation forward to make some distinctions about different kinds of leadership roles that can make a positive contribution in service of “persuing substantive changes that enhance a shared purpose”? Sometimes, for example, the “loyal opposition” actually make the most critical contribution in leadership.

    Bret L. Simmons Reply:

    Welcome, Ron. I try to keep things as simple as possible myself. I like your idea of loyal opposition and concur. Thanks for sharing your thoughts! Bret

  8. Nick Wright says:

    Hi Bret,

    Well said. I’ve drawn similar conclusions over recent years. It’s as if leadership is a dynammic that emerges between people under certain conditions, rather than necessarily something that’s the property of an individual. I’ve written a few blogs on this topic too, if you’re interested, e.g. http://www.nick-wright.com/1/post/2011/02/and-more-leadership-musings.html. with best wishes. Nick

    Bret L. Simmons Reply:

    Welcome, Nick. Thanks for adding your thoughts to this conversation and for sharing the link to your blogs. Hope folks check that out. Bret

  9. Yes! Leadership should be happening anywhere in the organization, regardless of position.

    Bret L. Simmons Reply:

    Welcome, Kevin. Thanks for sharing your thoughts! Bret