In Simple English, What does Leadership Mean?

Minute Read

Updated Over a Week Ago


A few years ago, at the end of a first-year university workshop on leadership theory with a heavy focus on the ideas of transformational and servant leadership, a young woman who had been sitting near the front approached me.

“Sir,” she said shyly, “I’m afraid I don’t understand.”

“What exactly is it you don’t understand?” I asked.

“I’m afraid it’s leadership, sir.”

“Well,” I said with a small smile, “I wouldn’t worry too much about that – we have all semester to explore what leadership means.”

She shook her head.

“That’s just it, sir. I understood leadership before I came today, and now I’m afraid I don’t.”

I’ve come to hope that many people walk out of my workshops feeling that is the case, but at the time, I was quite upset as someone endeavoring to be an educator.

“What do you mean?” I asked.

“Well,” she said. “I’m an international student. And in my country, we’re told that the smartest people make the best leaders. I was always taught the smartest people are the ones who get the best grades, so getting the best grades is what earns you leadership.”

“But,” she continued, “what you talked about today makes me think that leadership means something different. But it’s more complicated. I just want to know what ‘leadership’ means in simple English.”

I smiled with tremendous confidence and opened my mouth to provide her with my well-rehearsed and carefully thought-out personal definition of leadership.

And nothing came out!

My mind was blank. I realized that not only did I lack a well-rehearsed answer to her question, but I also lacked any answer at all.

Get Some Clarity

I realized that I knew the theories of leadership, that I could tell stories of leadership, and that I could help people identify and develop the leadership skills that were integral to leadership. What I didn’t have was my own personal definition of what leadership meant, “in simple English.”

What I had come across was one of those questions to which you’re certain you know the answer…until someone actually asks the question.

It genuinely shook me, as leadership was a value I was aiming to embody every day of my life, yet I found myself unable to articulate exactly what it meant to me. I realized that while I recognized many of the values I wanted to embody in my life, I hadn’t actually defined them.

I went home that night and, at the age of 28, decided for the first time to actually try to make myself present in a solitary exploration of my values. That young woman made me realize that leadership was a value I wanted to embody every day of my life.

This was something I had always intrinsically known but had never actually taken the time to understand.

I realized there’s a distinct difference between recognizing something and understanding it. And I determined I wanted to be more deliberate in thinking about what it was I wanted to stand for in my everyday behavior.

Listing of Values

List Your Values

And so, I took a few hours to engage in an activity I recommend to everyone: I sat down and listed the values I wanted to embody every day in my life. The list took shape quickly: “leadership”; “respect”; “transparency”; “accountability”; “passion” to name just a few.  At times, I stopped myself and asked, “wait…is that really a ‘value’?”  But then I realized I was okay with seeing a “value” as being any concept or belief that I felt could positively influence my behavior.

Where things slowed down in the next step: I looked at each value in turn and asked myself, “If that young woman came up to me and asked me to explain, in ‘simple English,’ what this word means, what would I say?”

Over and over again, I was forced to come to grips with the fact that these ideas, these “fundamental values” in my life, lacked a clear definition for me.  I knew they represented something important to me and that they certainly sounded good, but it proved a much more difficult, though ultimately rewarding, process than I anticipated.

Step three was even tougher.  Once I was happy with my definition of each value, I asked myself, “What is one thing I can do each day to make sure that I embody this particular value?”

However, that last step was crucial – because it allowed me to clearly identify targets that represented the realization of my goal of “living my values”. I believe that leadership comes from creating opportunities to live your values, as well as living them when the opportunity arises or the situation demands it.

Honestly, I’ve come to see setting goals as planning celebrations – you’re identifying a concrete moment when you’re allowed to say to yourself, “well done.”

3 Steps

I encourage all of you to take a moment soon to take those same three steps:

  1. Create as exhaustive a list as you can of the “values I hope to embody every day of my life.”
  2. Create as comprehensive a definition as possible for what each of those values means to you.  Ask yourself, “if someone who spoke another language asked me to explain what this value means in ‘simple English’, what would I say?”
  3. Identify 1-3 actions you could take every day to ensure you demonstrate that value.

Take The Time

If we don’t take the time to define the things that we hope will define us, we’re always going to feel as if we aren’t living up to the person we want to be.  After all, how do you give yourself credit for hitting a target you’ve never actually identified?

If you don’t clearly define what “accountability” means to you, you may be embodying it every single day but never giving yourself the opportunity to acknowledge and celebrate that fact.

However, unless we define at least some version of “victory,” the exhilaration and fulfillment that propels us toward our next goal never materialize.

Taking the time to define the values you wish to embody in your life and identifying activities you can engage in each day is establishing what victory actually means.

Misunderstanding Values

It’s important to create that same opportunity for your organization. After all, people’s behavior is driven by their values. And conflict within your organization often comes as a result of a misalignment and/or a misunderstanding of values.

The value-based leadership work of James Kouzes and Barry Posner demonstrates that an individual’s commitment to their organization is highest when they have a clear understanding of both the organization’s values and their own personal values.

What’s interesting is what leads to the lowest level of commitment: it is not, as you might suspect when an individual lacks clarity on both the organization’s values and personal values.

The lowest level of commitment to an organization comes when an individual has a clear understanding of the organization’s values but not of their own.

Core Values

As such, ask your managers to facilitate this process for employees at every level of the organization.

In addition, bring the senior leadership of the organization together and create a list of 12-15 “core values” you hope your organization embodies each day.

For instance, I worked with one organization to create this list:

  • Approachability/Openness
  • Credibility/Respect
  • Equity/Fairness
  • Transparency/Accountability
  • Fiscal Responsibility
  • Advocacy/Representation of Constituents
  • Service Provision
  • Fun
  • Professionalism
  • Personal Development
  • Professional Development
  • Community Service/Outreach
Define Your Why

Defining Values

Then, undertake the following exercise:

  • Give each of your organization’s senior leaders the list of values and ask them to rank them in the order they feel your organization should prioritize them.
  • Bring the group together and dedicate 90 minutes to 2 hours to reach a “consensus ranking” of the values, stressing that consensus means creating something everyone can support rather than something everyone fully agrees with.
  • Ask managers at every level of the organization to organize the same activity for groups of their employees (it works best in groups of about 12).  Once they create their “consensus ranking”, reveal the consensus ranking created by the organization’s senior leaders, and have your managers facilitate a discussion on the employees’ feelings about how their answers align or differ with the senior leadership, why that might be, what impact it might have, and what can/should be done about it.

In reality, the final consensus ranking isn’t what’s important in this exercise – rather, it’s the increased understanding generated by the discussion itself.

Value Agreement

Generally, the discussion will demand leaders not only identify which values are most important to them but explain exactly what they believe each value means.  You will often hear comments like, “Oh! Okay, if you define ‘accountability’ like that, I agree with you.  I was going on the idea that accountability meant…”

The exercise ensures your organization agrees on common definitions for the values that will fundamentally define your organization.

In addition, you will find that the discussion surfaces different visions for the organization and demands that the team discuss those differences.  It’s not uncommon to hear statements like, “I’ve always believed our fundamental purpose is to…” or “When it all comes down to it, I think our job is…”

The earlier these previously unidentified differences surfaced, the better for your organization.

What Does Leadership Mean to You?

If you have ideas that you feel like sharing that might be helpful to readers, share them in the comments section below. Thanks!

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Drew Dudley
Drew Dudley
Drew is the Founder and Chief Catalyst of Nuance Leadership, Inc., and the former Coordinator of one of Canada’s largest leadership development programs at the University of Toronto.
  • Tim Cummuta says:

    Leadership to me is exhibited by the ethical and moral standard those in the organization see as consistent with their personal ethical and moral makeup and which they can rally around. Leadership is the central capacity needed for most individuals to focus in a singular fashion as a part of the team in order to effectively accomplish the goals of the organization. Leadership should be characterized by the compassionate creative ability to draw as many individuals as are needed into a common functionally productive system.

  • M.S.Kannan says:

    Very Good article

    Leadership in my definition is one who Leads to correct errors in not just himself/herself but that of others to emerge as a role model & create more of performing leaders as a friend philosopher & guide.


  • Terry Jackson says:

    Excellent article. Leadership is about aligning Vision, People and Process. Leadership is fluid. A key trait in leadership is adaptability. Excellent points.

  • Graham Robertson says:

    Leadership is about turning around and seeing people follow you. Too many times, we think it’s about boldly being out front. Many times that leader has no followers. Getting others to follow requires someone to connect based on a shared promise, values and likely the reason why we should go there. People don’t buy what you do, they buy why you do it.

  • Dana Roberts says:

    You were amazing today, Drew. I saw you at the UofL Leadership conference. I was really reluctant before your address on becoming a leader. You made me realize that it is not hard to be a leader; simply be the person you want to be, treat others with dignity and respect and forgive, move on and seek the positive.

    You are one of the best speakers I have ever had the pleasure of seeing. I hope you continue to educate the masses, spreading this unrealized message. You truly are one of the great leaders of our time.

    Thank you!

  • John Barrett says:

    I find sometimes that looking at complex ideas from a simple point of view helps me understand the concept – gives it context, if you will. My simple definition of leadership is: “Knowing what needs to be done, and influencing others to do it.”

    I think that fits the lollipop moment, and means that under different situations we are all capable of showing leadership.

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