How to Think About Leadership

“Effective leadership is not about making speeches or being liked; leadership is defined by results not attributes.”
– Peter Drucker

“I suppose leadership at one time meant muscles; but today it means getting along with people.”
– Mahatma Gandhi

Last night, I was given the opportunity to lead my small group. We are working our way through 1 Timothy, and I was assigned chapter 3, where the Apostle Paul outlines the leadership qualifications necessary for elders and deacons of the church. To get the ball rolling on the topic, I split up the men and the women and gave them each a sheet of poster board and a marker and asked them to write down as many qualities, traits, and characteristics they could think of that define a good leader. They were given about five minutes to fill up their boards and then we got back together as a group.

Many traits appeared on both boards. Things like responsibility, good character, discerning, decisiveness, and humility appeared on both. But – and I’m sure you knew all along – the most interesting aspect lies in how the two lists were different. The women included things like good listener, compassionate, and people person in their list, while the men chose terms like brave, fearless, organized, and the like while compiling theirs. (“People person” prompted an intense debate over whether Eisenhower was a good leader or not, having been a successful general and two-term president but also notoriously withdrawn.) To put it another way, the women valued leaders who were both qualified and sensitive to the emotional and interpersonal needs of the group, whereas the men valued leaders who were both qualified and able to approach their project with the necessary task- and detail-orientation.

I’m not writing this to naively attempt to prove gender differences. I’m sure all of us can think of dozens of examples of emotionally-driven men and task-oriented women. And I’m certainly not saying that one leadership style is better than another. What would work with one task and one group at one time might fail spectacularly with any other. (Adaptability is a key component for successful leadership – one more point to the ladies.) No, the purpose of writing this is to remind myself (and hopefully y’all as well) that my personal conception and definition of leadership is lacking, and to repeat the call that sometimes it can be hard to identify good leadership at a glance. Nobody thought to put side view mirrors on our cars until we acknowledged the existence of blind spots.

A significant amount of the disappointment we feel in life, in our work, in our relationships, derives from unmet expectations. So if we’re harboring one expectation of leadership and don’t acknowledge that there are other equally valid ways for someone to lead, we can find ourselves frustrated or disappointed. On the flip side of that coin, if we are leaders ourselves, we need to foster a good understanding of what our groups expect from us. I think this applies to husbands, wives, pastors, teachers, and sometimes just the people waiting at bus stops. So take time to think about your own view of leadership, and ask other people about theirs. At the very least, it’s something better to talk about than the weather.

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