What is leadership?

  • Published
  • By Lt. Col. David J. Boyd
  • 49th Security Forces Squadron commander
What is leadership? If you were to ask 10 different people about their definition of leadership, you would get 10 different responses with varying degrees of similarity. The same holds true when turning to academia for a standard definition. Ten different books net you 10 different definitions.

How can one single word or concept have so many different explanations? Is it because leadership isn't something you can tag with a single interpretation? Perhaps leadership has more to do with our personal life experiences in relation to our own particular situations and how we influence others. To use a one-size-fits-all definition of leadership makes about as much sense as the cliché, "I wish (s)he would use common sense." Well, it would only be common if we all shared common life experiences.

Based on my personal experiences, I would like to extend to you my definition of leadership, which is, "To have influence that impacts another's thoughts, behaviors, and/or environment."

For me, this answers the age-old debate about whether leaders are born or made. This definition essentially says that everyone, to some degree, is a leader in that we all influence others. To what extent we influence others depends on our situation, our environment, our life experiences and most importantly, the choices we make.

Based on the definition I gave, I like to think of leadership as a journey. Simply put, the choices I make today are not the choices I would have made 17 years ago (when I began my commissioning program). As with any journey, you must determine your destination, then orient yourself to your map and acquire a compass heading.

When determining our leadership destination in terms of how we influence others, we really only have two destinations from which to choose. We either choose to serve others or we choose to be served by others. To answer this for myself I ask one question: do I want what is best for the person, community or mission over which I have influence, or do I desire personal power, recognition and/or reward?

Once you have determined your desired destination, it's time to orient the compass of your heart and mind. A self-serving destination requires a compass heading that navigates you toward self-serving or egocentric leadership. For the most part, it's an easy route simply because it is all about you. A servant-hood destination requires a compass heading that navigates you toward selfless leadership. This is a difficult and painstaking heading in that it requires constant, honest reflection of your internal motivators and how you can best serve others. While on the servant-hood heading, it is important to consistently re-assess/re-orient, because it's easy to become lost and start to assume a heading that is all about your own self interests.

In closing, I would like to remind you that no one has the market on leadership nor is there a sole proprietor on its definition. I do, however, encourage you to read, watch and listen to as much leadership material as you can. The more leadership study in which you engage, the better equipped you will be with your own awareness and application. Finally, remember to stick to your natural style and personality while honoring the differences in others.