No one owns the definition of leadership


When you arrive at that point in your career when you get a dawning realisation that you are a “senior leader” an odd thing can happen. There is a moment that many leaders reach and share with me, where they find they are struggling to define leadership for themselves. They are surrounded by Executive peers and Board members who are already well-established and who are leading in a way that at least appears comfortable and confident. These ‘new’ senior leaders find themselves further away from their comfort zones and wrestling to find a way of operating where they can feel comfortable and satisfy what is required from them in their new elevated position.

The result is that many such leaders, in an attempt to avoid some degree of imposter syndrome, take one or more of the following approaches:
1. Engage a leadership mentor
2. Try to copy those already in senior positions
3. Sign up for an Executive education programme at a Business School
4. Read lots of books on leadership

Thing is, these aren’t the best place to start the process of defining leadership for yourself. Let’s look at each briefly before exploring where you’ll definitely want to start the journey of becoming an outstanding senior leader.


What a great resource leadership mentors can be. Insightful in providing new leaders with both short-cuts and red-flags that help save time (vital) and avoid major screw-ups (even more vital!). Providing a “this is how I did it” approach, can be a life-saver for new Executive leaders. Mentors can also offer a sense of not being alone and having a critical friend in moments of real need.

Copy-cat leadership

I have written often that leaders are never not role modelling. Your team members, Boss and peers are always watching you, even sub-consciously. So, leaders are always being observed and judged, but by definition, they are also often being the observer of other leaders. This can result in the very common “I’d never do it like that” awareness, when leaders see something that they would not condone doing if the roles were reversed. Whilst this deficit approach to learning-by-watching is common, leaders watching other leaders in order to learn some positives seems less prevalent but is still a good way for new leaders to learn how to lead.

Executive Education

Exec education can work incredibly well when there is evidence-based input that is highly applicable to the real world in which Executives work. Learning that is designed to ensure that leadership development happens through undertaking real work, ensures that leaders can see how to apply what they have learned, back in the work-place. Rolling out keynote speakers with a view/experience to share can also be useful. Another great advantage of attending such Exec development is the networking with other professionals that may prove helpful over a life-time of leadership.

Reading Leadership Material

I love to read the latest leadership book. I absorb key thoughts from a wide range of books over the course of a year. Assimilating diverse ideas and cherry-picking concepts that resonate for me, helps me keep developing my own leadership approach in an ongoing way. The challenge with many leaders in relation to reading leadership ideas, is they’ll pursue one idea until the next shiny idea comes along. The sound-track goes a bit like this: “Oooh Authentic Leadership … I love that … What’s this? Integrated Leadership … Very cool and soooo me!! … YES! … Values-based leadership … I’m on it!” etc etc etc. Well-intentioned learning can end up looking a bit desperate and feel, for those you lead, to be pretty inconsistent. That inconsistency prompts uncertainty and that uncertaintly negatively impacts your effectiveness as a leader.

So where to start?

Start by acknowledging that only you will do leadership the way you are going to do it. Your version of senior leadership will never have been witnessed before and will never be seen again, in exactly the way you are going to do it. Recognise that learning from others – be they mentors, peers, instructors or authors – is helpful but never the answer on its own.

“No-one owns the definition of senior leadership but what is critical for you is that you have a definition of it for you.”

Working on developing your version of leadership is always time well spent.

– What sort of leader you want to be
– Your view of how and where you can add most value
– What values you hold dear and won’t compromise

These are all activities that will guide how you behave as a senior leader. You will have some areas of flexibility and others where you will stand fast. You will understand the current context and how your leadership will work here but also have deep roots that will guide how you want to lead, irrespective of context.

Working this out for yourself does several things, including speeds up decision-making, reduces anxiety and increases self-confidence. Not bad results for a relatively little bit of proactive thinking!

If you need help defining your version of senior or executive leadership for yourself, Glenn Wallis has a proven track-record of working with successfully with leaders just like you. You can contact him here when you are sure you are ready to get serious about leadership.

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