What Are Leadership Skills? And What Is a “Leader”?

“In 1938… the year’s #1 newsmaker was not FDR, Hitler,
or Mussolini. Nor was it Lou Gehrig or Clark Gable.
The subject of the most newspaper column inches in 1938
wasn’t even a person. It was an undersized,
crooked-legged racehorse named Seabiscuit.”
Laura HillenbrandSeabiscuit: An American Legend

For some the term, “leadership” raises anxiety and for others it produces yawns. We’ve heard for so very long how important it is to show leadership, the implication being that otherwise we will fail at whatever it is we plan to pursue, whether that’s getting into a top college or landing a coveted position in a sought-after company. But the term has been overused to the point of its meaning being greatly diminished.

And that’s too bad, because leadership skills are important. But it does not mean that everyone must be the club president, MVP of the hockey team, CEO, President, Chief, Director or “The Boss” to be considered a success at leadership. It’s equally important to be a productive rank-and-file member of a club, team, college, organization, government or society. To me, leadership means that individuals should strive to do their best at whatever they are doing, and to be professional, ethical, enthusiastic, dedicated, creative, honest, open and fair-minded while they’re doing it.

Whatever your job is or wherever you are in your career, or whichever unexpected situations confront you, performing at the top of your game regardless of what comes your way and setting an example for others to follow constitute leadership.

The Leadership Craze 

Unfortunately, colleges and employers have overplayed and overstated “leadership” to the point that the term has become a cliché. But embedded alongside leadership in the list of desired qualities are those leadership skills that everyone, whether a leader or a follower, should possess in the professional world: work ethic, communication skills (written and oral), ability to be a team player, flexibility/adaptability, interpersonal skills/ability to get along with others (read: business etiquette), initiative, creativity (the old “think out of the box” thing) as well as the appropriate technical skills required to excel in college and your particular field.

Universities and employers should reflect upon and clarify what is meant by leadership, because the current message is taking a toll on students and young professionals with potential from developing the aptitudes they naturally possess. Overlooked is the fact that leadership comes in all shapes, sizes, fabrics and colors and why should institutions that value diversity try to fit everyone into a one-size-fits-all leadership straightjacket? After all, a student or yo pro who has not headed a club, chaired a committee, captained a sports team or managed a corporate team can still find a cure for a disease or sort out a company’s back-office glut. Such a person can also impress, influence and inspire others. I call that leadership.

Diversity of personalities, talents and achievements strengthens a campus or company, and provides a fruitful balance of leaders and followers. Competition to get to the top is healthy and will always exist. But there must also be the support teams that weave a vibrant infrastructure in which the company can thrive through tough economic times and during periods of weak leadership, as illustrated by this 1980’s piece in the Harvard Business Review, “In Praise of Followers.” (How about that! This is not a new topic! You’d think we’d be able to solve it after all these years.)

Follower or Leader — or Both?

We need both leaders and followers, and most people are both. In an issue of The Leadership Challenge, Apple financial analyst Susan Wong was asked, “Can leaders be followers?” Her reply was, “A good leader is also a good follower. This might sound like a paradox,” she continued, “but based on my experience I notice that good leaders understand boundaries and are willing to accept sound advice from followers.” (Read the entire article here.)

The fact is, before one is a leader he or she is a follower. And as there are many more followers than leaders, they need to be darn good at what they do if the organization, society or performance they support is going to succeed in engaging, impressing and winning its audiences. In that regard, I love the particular comparison of being an outstanding follower to dance movement, in “The Perfect Follow-A Journey in Dance.

Some people start out as followers and naturally develop into leaders in one or more parts of our lives. Similarly, some might start out as leaders but discover that they are happy and successful in follower roles. And, lest anyone ever underestimate the importance of followers to the success of a movement and give too much credit to the leader, check out this delightful TED Talk. And remember that the flip side of leadership, followership, also requires some heavy-duty skills.

Thus, in many cases, leadership might not be so cut and dried at the starting line. And that is the reason I chose the photo of the legendary racehorse, Seabiscuit, to accompany this post (seen at the top working out with George Woolf). Seabiscuit was a small, knobby-kneed colt who was seemingly disinterested in doing much more than sleeping. He was an underperformer until the day someone recognized his potential and provided him with with top-notch training. The initially unimpressive and unmotivated colt might have been written off completely and faded into oblivion; instead, he turned out to be one of the outstanding racehorse champions of all time, a true leader with heart and guts that won nearly every major horseracing prize and was named American Horse of the Year in 1938. Seabiscuit inspired a nation that had been brought to its knees by The Great Depression and proved that it is possible to rise from obscurity to become a champion.

It’s not always easy or possible to pick out which colt or filly is going to be a leader in his or her field, be it horseracing or career-building. Thus, it’s wise college admissions and HR directors who understand this phenomenon and look for many signs that an applicant to college or company has the potential to be exceptional.

Find Your Own Niche…and Own It

Leadership on any level and in any job entails possessing both hard and soft skills, knowing your job hands down cold, having the confidence in and courage of your convictions, being the go-to person in your position or even field, setting an example for others to follow, communicating clearly and effectively, influencing others to see your viewpoint, and showing and commanding respect. This is true whether you have a knack for a particular subject and can help another student to grasp a concept; you are in an entry-level position in the mailroom of your dream company and are performing so well that the CEO requests you be assigned to his floor; or you are a computer programmer who has a knack for explaining things in clear layman’s terms in a friendly manner and consequently are assigned to a top-level project. These are all examples of transitioning into leadership positions organically, by outperforming in your job and being recognized for it. By mastering your passion and owning your niche, opportunities will unfold in due course. But as in the Seabiscuit example, unless there are those who are talented at crystal ball gazing these scenarios might not be apparent when a student applies to college or a new grad applies to her first job. It takes a keen interest and practiced eye to pick out future champs.

So whether your brand of leadership is quiet or loud, it’s probably there and will emerge when you decide to access it, or find yourself stepping into a leadership role — either temporarily or permanently –when necessity or opportunity arises. There will always be races to run.

Until next time,


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