What Does a Leader Do?

So much has been written on leadership, yet the concept of leadership often remains vague and unclear. The first reason for this is probably that many books on leadership are average to bad.

But even good books on leadership often fail to provide the core clarity that goes right to the heart of what leadership is. For example, Marcus Buckingham points out that the book Primal Leadership: Learning to Lead with Emotional Intelligence details “nineteen traits that effective leaders are supposed to possess.”

I have that book on my to read list, but now I’m afraid to read it. How are you going to keep 19 different competencies in mind? It is hard to apply such a broad spectrum in the day-to-day.

To be sure, it is helpful to understand the characteristics of something, especially leadership. There is much value in that.

But, before that, I would argue that you need to know the single, underlying core of a matter. Knowing the 19 characteristics of this or that is not going to be sufficient guidance. It’s too much — and too little — at the same time. They need to be integrated into a bigger idea.

You need to know the core of a matter so that you have a context for understanding the broader characteristics of it (in this case, leadership). So, what is the core of leadership? What is the essence of what a leader does?

Maybe the authors of Primal Leadership do this. But successful attempts at this are rare. I have seen nothing more helpful than the definition of leadership that Marcus Buckingham gives in his book The One Thing You Need to Know: … About Great Managing, Great Leading, and Sustained Individual Success.

Buckingham’s definition is not simply the best of a bunch of “good but still not exactly right” attempts; it resonates. When you read his definition, you immediately get it. Finally. You have an aha moment (at least I did), and realize “that’s it — that’s what leadership is.”

So, what does a leader do? Buckingham’s answer is:

Great leaders rally people to a better future.

A great leader does not control people, he rallies them. He rallies them to realize and bring about a vision of a better future.

Buckingham especially emphasizes the future-oriented nature of leadership:

The two key words in this definition are “better future.” What defines a leader is his preoccupation with the future. In his head he carries a vivid image of what the future could be, and this image drives him on. This image, rather than, say, goals of outperforming competitors, or being individually productive, or helping others achieve success, is what motivates the leader.

Don’t misunderstand. An effective leader might also be competitive, achievement oriented, and a good coach. But these are not the characteristics that make him a leader. He is a leader if, and only if, he is able to rally others to the better future he sees. (The One Thing You Need to Know, pp 59-60.)

One last thing: This means that a leader must have a talent for optimism. If you are not an optimistic person, nobody will want to go to the future that you see. Leaders rally to a better future. “As a leader you must believe, deeply, instincitvely, that things can get better” (p. 63).