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  • Writer's picturePhil Cole

Visualize leadership in the real world. What do you see?

What do you actually see in the real world when someone is “doing” leadership?

It looks a group of people performing tasks together. That is, people performing their individual jobs - whether it be programming, creating art, spraying water on a fire, filling out forms, or whatever it might be - or talking about the tasks they are doing.

And all of these efforts are working towards a common goal. It’s hard to see the common goal, but if you watch over time then you will see that these efforts align towards some invisible future outcome.

Here’s the critical thing: it is not a single person “leading”. It’s not someone talking in front of a room, or explaining things to other people, or telling people what to do, which is what we generally think of when we try to visualize “leadership”.

It’s not a single person doing this because without other people performing their jobs, that single person is just talking. We assume that the talking motivates other people to act and therefore is leadership, but it’s the final outcome that shows leadership has occurred, not the single person’s actions which we assume are causing others to work together.

So why does it matter that we know that leadership appears in the real world as a group of people acting together towards a common goal?

Being good at something requires we go from an abstract idea (“leading”) to specific actions which we take in the real world.

To do that, we have to be able to understand what the idea looks like. Without that understanding, we have no way to know that the actions we are taking align with the idea. This is like saying we are doing math without understanding addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division. Math is just a concept, those four tasks are what math looks like in the real world.

You can’t see motivation, or values, or emotions, or shared purpose, or relationships, or any of the other things that we talk about in leadership development. Try, for a second - try to visualize what the last expert told you was the secret to successful leadership. Point to it in the real world. Put your finger on it.

You won’t see it. You’ll only see the assumed result, people performing tasks together.

So much of what we do in leadership is invisible, and it’s easy to get distracted by things that make sense in an abstract way but aren’t necessarily part the line between the abstract concept to our actions in the real world.

Imagine two points in space. There’s a straight line between the two points, but there are a heck of a lot of lines that connect those two lines but aren’t straight. In fact, you could draw lines connecting those two points that went on forever. You could wander along some of those lines for your whole life and never get to the final point. That’s the danger of many so-called leadership experts.

We need to be very clear what successful leadership looks like in the real world so that we can find the shortest path between the abstract concept and our real world actions. So that we can make the right decisions.

So leadership, as it is visible in the real world, is a group of people performing tasks together, and we need to understand that so that we can find the shortest line between our abstract concept of leadership.

But here’s the thing - when we see leadership, we often don’t recognize it. That’s because we expect to see that single “leader” standing up and giving a fearless vision that inspires and motivates, when what we should be seeing is the group of people working together.

Because successful leadership doesn’t always look like much.

Leadership doesn’t need to be in an organization. It doesn’t require salary, or hierarchy, or reporting, or processes, rewards and punishment, or planning. It doesn’t need the formal characteristics we think of when we describe leadership.

It can be as simple as two people in a relationship, deciding where in life they want to go. What jobs they want, what kind of house, if they want kids, what to eat for dinner.

Or a group of people planning a party. Not a formal wedding planner, but just a few guys and gals getting together to

throw a great BBQ on Saturday afternoon.

These simple situations are still leadership. They are a group of people performing tasks towards a common purpose.

And in these situations there isn’t (generally) one person who stands up and shares his vision for the family, or talks about how she believes in the launch of a new way to party.

Rather, the roles and responsibilities - the actions - that are normally assigned to a leader occur among the group. Decision-making, assigning tasks, planning, etc. all occur without formal management or oversight by a “leader”. These situations are organic leadership.

And, as leaders in both formal and organic settings, we often use very different behaviors and actions. We may seem to be different people when we move from the group of friends planning a party to the office where we are a supervisor or manager. We may be doing something that works well in the informal setting, but not taking that same behavior and applying it to the formal setting.

So far I’ve explained that, in the real world, the visible expression of leadership is just a group of people performing tasks towards a common goal, and not someone being “a leader”. Being able to visualize leadership like this helps us find the shortest path between the abstract idea of “leadership” and our actions in the real world. And when we understand this, we can see that leadership occurs in many situations that don’t have a person in that role of “leader” or the other characteristics of formal leadership such as hierarchy, authority, etc..

Here’s why this is critical:

When we can see leadership in these type of situations, we can learn from it. We can see what actions we do - and others do - to cause people to perform their jobs towards a common purpose. We can see that the events that caused people to do this isn’t the guy standing up in front of the crowd, but rather a whole different set of actions and behaviors.

We can learn from our successes and weaknesses when we are exposed to this kind of leadership, both as leaders and contributors in non-formal leadership situations. We can identify the behaviors that work, and then apply those to our more formal leadership roles.

So, here’s my challenge to you - look at your life and find moments that are leadership, but that don’t have the formal characteristics of leadership. Look for people who are performing tasks as a group, towards a common purpose. Then ask yourself, what caused these people to take the time and spend the energy to do this? What gave them direction and momentum?

And ask yourself, how can I build on these actions? How can I model what worked in those informal leadership situations, and how can I use these actions in my formal leadership situations? Am I building direction and momentum in the people I “lead”, or am I acting like I believe a “leader” should act? Am I a person standing up in front of a crowd talking, or are my actions causing people to perform tasks towards a common purpose?

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