If you ask whether someone is a leader, you seem to asking about a relatively permanent state, like asking whether a person is a doctor or a lawyer. If you are a father or a mother, you occupy that role for life. But being a leader is not really like this anymore.

We live in an age of guerrilla warfare when a motley crew, thrown together on the spur of the moment, can often defeat the greatest Generals. It’s like being a leader in sports. One minute you’re in the lead and the next you’re not. Leadership, like guerilla warfare, is much more transient than being a parent, lawyer or doctor.

At one time, leadership was about dominance. The person who was physically strongest got to be the top dog. Then came the cult of personality where we let people dominate us if they have rock star personalities. But form without content is fast fading in its power to hold our attention. We now want people who can deliver and our patience is short.

Building on the guerilla warfare theme, today’s reality is that it is much easier to show leadership occasionally than it is to BE a leader for more than a moment. The truth is that leadership has always been about power. In the old days it was about the power to dominate us. Today, we say that content is king. A crucial implication of this slogan is that no one has a monopoly on good content, eye-catching ideas. The power to lead has shifted forever from personal power to the ability to generate new ideas, the next great thing that captures everyone’s imagination. This is not so much the power of knowledge as the power to create new knowledge. This is why leadership needs to be seen as an occasional act, almost like creativity, rather than a long term role like fatherhood. I call it thought leadership. Anyone who promotes a new idea, a better way of doing things and who successfully convinces others to buy the idea, has shown leadership. On this view, leadership could be shown by everyone at a meeting and it could shift from one participant to another several times during the meeting.

So, the question ‘’Are you a leader?’’ should be recast as ‘’Can you show leadership?’’ Take Al Gore. You could say that he is not a leader in the old dominant sense because he missed out on being president, but he often shows leadership today – whenever he makes speeches that champion environmental causes.

If you want to know whether you can show leadership, don’t ask whether you have what it takes to be the boss, to get to the top slot. Ask yourself instead whether you have ever convinced your colleagues or boss to do something different. Actually, to show leadership, your followers don’t even have to do anything. You could show leadership by convincing people to stop doing something or to avoid taking what is clearly an unfounded risk. Maybe you convinced your colleagues to avoid doing something unethical. You have shown leadership in these instances because you have influenced people to change their thinking. Perhaps you are just an unusually hard worker who never complains, who just gets on with it, but who never tries to persuade colleagues of anything. Still, you may have shown leadership by example if they stopped complaining and got on with their work after observing you behave this way. 

The bottom line is that leadership comes in degrees. It is no longer the all-or-nothing thing of being at the top. Leadership can range from very small scale actions like setting a better example on how to serve customers in a restaurant to winning the support of millions to rally around you in support of a globally important cause. If you continue to see leadership in all-or-nothing terms as a role you need to aspire to, you are effectively disempowering yourself. You are denying your power to show leadership viewed as the occasional act of convincing others to adopt a better way. So, everyone can show some leadership every day, if only on a small scale. You might, therefore, ask yourself what leadership you can show today.

How You Can Be a Leader Now

Ask yourself what the following examples of leadership have in common:

  • Martin Luther King moved the Supreme Court to outlaw segregation on buses.
  • You influenced your boss to adopt a new policy.
  • The example of a customer service employee led her colleagues to follow suit.
  • A front-line employee sold a new product idea to top management.
  • Apple Computer influenced Microsoft to get into music distribution.
  • Gandhi, though long dead, influenced present day activists to be non-violent.
  • Tiger Woods led other golfers to raise their game.
  • You convinced a colleague to adopt a better way of doing his work.
  • You were the only one who didn’t complain about the latest changes at work.
  • You kept going after a setback when others were ready to give up.
  • You were the first among your colleagues to adopt a new technology.

At first glance there doesn’t seem to be much in common between you, Martin Luther King, Tiger Woods, Gandhi and Apple Computer. But, look a bit closer and you will see it. In all cases, someone showed the way for someone else. That’s all leadership is – showing the way, influencing others to follow, to do something different.

What else do these examples have in common? No one is the boss of those who were led. This is a critical point. We view people in charge of groups as our models of leadership, but this is really just a special case of leadership at best. I say ‘’at best’’ because it is possible to be in charge of others and just be a manager, hence not showing any leadership. If the group is working efficiently and does not need to change direction, then no leadership is shown or even necessary.

The bottom line here is that there is no way to unite all these diverse examples of leadership into a single model unless we define leadership simply as showing the way, pointing to a new direction. If we define leadership so that it implies taking charge of a group, then all of these examples are ruled out and we are then left with a very narrow concept of leadership.

There is yet more that these examples share. In all cases, the person or group showing leadership has nothing to do with helping to get anything done. It is only those who are led who take charge of implementing the suggested change in direction. This is important because leadership is conventionally conceived as taking people from A to B, of helping them achieve a goal. But we have to see the journey from A to B as a managerial undertaking if we are to restrict leadership to showing the way. And we must do this if we want to account for the full range of leadership instances. If you are in charge of people and you both promote a new direction and manage the implementation, then you are switching hats from leading to managing.

Notice also that none of these examples refers to influencing style. I have not talked about the need to be inspirational, emotionally intelligent or charismatic. That’s because there is simply no style that all leadership acts share. Leadership occurs when people willingly follow someone else’s lead. It doesn’t matter if leadership is by example, the making of a hard, factual case or an inspirational appeal. Influencing ability is important but how people are influenced should not be part of any definition of leadership.

Finally, in all cases, leadership is an occasional act, not a role, position or type of person. As an act, leadership is something anyone can show and it can shift from one person to another quickly. By changing our definition of leadership from what it takes to acquire and hold a dominant position in a group to one of an occasional act, we open the door for anyone to show leadership. The power that such leadership is based on has shifted from the ability to dominate others to the ability to offer a better idea. And it is not possible to monopolize good ideas. This is why you can show leadership; you have good ideas that can move others to change direction. Notice the switch from talking about how to be a leader to how to show leadership. This is a subtle but vital difference.