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What is leadership?

10 min read

What is leadership?

Ever wondered "What is leadership exactly?". You can find out now in this clear and comprehensive article.

Humans love to be led. Put 50 people in a room, give them a task, and leadership will emerge. Dividing up the work into specialized parts, and into things that can be done in parallel, is how we get things done. That takes leadership.

But, what exactly is leadership?

Dictionaries cite “the action of leading a group of people or an organization,” which doesn’t provide much clarity. Certainly, leadership does revolve around action.

The value-creating actions of leaders relate to leading people, organizing work, and ensuring governance. Those are the three duties of leaders. Let’s take a look closer at each of these, drawing on some real-world examples along the way.

1. Leading people

Here are three key actions that leaders take to lead people: 

  • Enabling individual employees and helping them grow.
  • Organizing people into teams and making it clear who’s doing what.
  • Ensuring each team has effective leadership.


1.1 Enabling employees

This basically means providing employees with everything they need to help them focus on their work, get their job done without frustrations, and deal with any problems that arise along the way.

Your systems and processes have obvious impact. But, so does your workplace culture, particularly if it’s a culture the empowers employees to share ideas, solve problems, and voice concerns.

WestJet Airlines provides a good example of the impact of truly enabling employees. Don Bell, co-founder of WestJet, said it simply: “Enable your people and the rest is simple.” WestJet grew quickly into a large and profitable airline because of the deliberate employee enablement culture that Don implemented. 

Nothing demotivates an employee faster than thinking their career is going nowhere. Ensuring effective training programs, recognizing small contributions along the way, and allowing their duties to evolve as they learn, are all huge motivators that leaders should provide.

1.2 Organizing teams and providing clarity

The whole point of an organization is to have lots of people working towards the same goal. For that to happen, people need to be organized into teams and those teams need to be aligned around what the goal is and who’s doing what. Leaders are responsible for providing that organization and clarity.

Cities are good examples of organizations that bring diverse people and functions together to get work done. In complex environments like this, clarity as to which teams are doing what brings a lot of value.

“With almost 1200 staff spread out over 60 buildings, one of our biggest challenges was creating understanding across the organization,” says Brandy Calvert, Communications Officer for the City of Medicine Hat. “Implementing a digital platform allowed us to 'introduce' City employees to each other and clarify the many teams working towards Council’s strategic priorities.”

Magic happens when teams understand their part of the bigger project, relative to the teams they work alongside. This allows teams to spot and clarify the “whitespace” between them at a level that no overseeing leader could spot. For example, they’ll be able to spot a mismatch on an interface specification that only those in the thick of the work could see.

1.3 Ensuring good leadership

Not only do you need to be a great leader, all the team leads under you need to be too. As a leadership team you need to be aligned around goals, and you need to all live the values that anchor your workplace culture.

On founding Harris+Hoole, a London-based chain of coffee shops, CEO Nick Tolley reflected: “The very first thing that I focused on was spending 110% of my time just making sure I had the right leadership team around me. So, from scratch, I recruited people with experience and qualifications within our environment, and maybe more importantly, who were aligned around our values and ambition.”

This allowed Nick to quickly scale his processes and workplace culture across a rapidly growing chain of stores.

“Leadership is ultimately about creating a way for people to contribute to making something extraordinary happen.” - Alan Keith, OBE

2. Organizing work

Organizing work is fundamental to leadership. It involves doing these three things:

  • Ensuring focus on the next step.
  • Ensuring that individuals truly own their task.
  • Expediting things on the critical path and running interference.


2.1 Ensuring focus on the next step

To be productive, each person needs to be focused on their next deliverable. For that to happen, leaders need to ensure that short-term goals are clear and aligned across teams. Doing some simple things, like working in tiny sprints and not getting side tracked when new ideas arrive, yields big productivity gains.

Luxury hotel chain YOTEL developed a process that provides this kind of focus for every employee. Part of their culture is a belief that it’s important to live their company values at work every day. They’ve been very deliberate in making this happen by creating 31 very simple practices—one for each day of the month—that employees are called to put into action, day by day.

An example of one of the practices is: Practice 7—We admit if we make a mistake or don’t know the answer.  “The 31 practices are actually extremely simple. I mean, crazily simple,” said Jo, VP -Brand for YOTEL, “but we’ve seen some fantastic results.”

2.2 Ensuring ownership

Joel Basgall, CEO and Co-Founder of Geneca, states it clearly: “If you foster a culture of ownership, you don’t need to be involved in every detail. You can focus your attention elsewhere, secure in the knowledge that owners will always come to you when they have problems or need help.” 

2.3 Removing roadblocks

Removing obstacles, frustrations, and confusions is one of the most important ways leaders can engage and be productive. Leaders need to be aware of the critical path towards achieving key goals and clear the roadblocks along the way.

In his book The Employee Engagement Mindset, Timothy R. Clark sets out a nice framework for how leaders should commit resources and remove roadblocks:

“Enable people to move forward in their work by committing appropriate resources, removing obstacles, helping them work across boundaries, and aligning processes, structure, and systems.” 

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3. Ensuring governance

Leadership also involves ensuring good governance, which involves these three things:

  • Understanding and managing risk.
  • Ensuring the right subject matter experts are engaged.
  • Ensuring integrity of processes and data. 


3.1 Managing risk

Most employees misunderstand risk. They hear “risk” and think “probability”. They believe the risk of someone hacking your site is low, because they don’t see anyone trying to gain access.

However, the consequence of such a hack could well be the end of your business. The risk in this situation is high since it’s determined by the multiplication of the probability (low) times the consequence (life threatening).

Leaders are in the unique position of being able to see both the big picture and the details. They need to truly understand risk, spot it, and take actions to mitigate it.

3.2 Ensuring experts are engaged

If your employees are taking ownership to move initiatives forward, the best thing to do is to stay out of their way, right? Not necessarily. If people are moving confidently forward without the right experience and expertise at the table, it’s time for a leader to step in. Ensuring the right stakeholders and subject mater experts are involved is a key leadership function.

In their article on harnessing your staff’s informal networks, Richard McDermott and Douglas Archibald explain: “Though in-house networks of experts—or ‘communities of practice’—were once entirely unofficial, today they are increasingly integrated into companies’ formal management structures.”

Interestingly, those experts are often hidden in your organization and hard to spot. Woodland Trust is a great example of an organization that surfaced their experts when they gave them a voice via an employee intranet.  

Woodland Trust have 450 people dispersed across the UK maintaining woodlands. These people are passionate experts, but they mostly work in the field and many are introverts by nature. Implementing an intranet resulted in many individuals volunteering their own stories, commenting on posts, and actively engaging in discussions.

“I see some of our more ardent environmentalists—and this is about their personal views as much as their work views—really contributing,” said Anne Lightowler, Head of HR. “It’s a joy.”

“The Jostle platform has given a voice to people who wouldn’t have been engaged in anything else that was going on in the organization prior to the new intranet,” shared Anne. The new intranet is providing a forum that allows some of their more introverted staff members to share their expertise, contribute to company culture, and truly become part of the fabric that makes up the company.

3.3 Ensuring integrity of processes and information

When employees are blocked, or their time is wasted, they get frustrated and disengage. Nothing does that more effectively than broken processes and bad data. (IBM estimates the annual cost of poor quality data, in the US alone, to be $3.1 trillion.)

Smart leaders put the systems and checks in place so that accurate information is easily available to every employee that needs it. 

This is a problem that M&G Pizza Enterprises recently addressed across their 26 franchised Domino’s Pizza stores. With a mixed bag of communication tools and no central hub for storing documents, M&G was wasting too much time trying to find important information, HR and training documents, and reference messages.

“It became increasingly difficult and time-consuming as the company expanded,” commented Caleb Archer, Project Specialist at M&G. “There wasn’t a centralized resource or designated place to find the tools and information needed.

M&G solved this by putting an intranet in place that provided an easy-to-use central repository for all their key documents. “We’ve improved our operational evaluation report (OER) scores by sharing best practices and communicating goals daily,” Caleb told us. “It’s easier than ever to keep everyone up to date with training and urgent updates.” 

The underpinnings of great leaders

As we’ve already explored, leaders ensure their teams have clarity, ownership, and focus. To do that, there are four key things that great leaders put in motion to create extraordinary organizations:

  1. Purpose
  2. Culture
  3. Trust
  4. Recognition


1. Purpose provides focus for tasks along the path to a long-term destination. It also serves to help each employee see meaning in their own work because they understand its greater impact.

2. Culture is what ensures consistency in behaviour through shared values. It makes it a lot easier to align teams, make decisions, and work together. Len Jillard, Chief People Officer for McDonald’s Canada sets out clearly the impact of leaders on culture and values:

“I think culture is simply a reflection of leadership beliefs—their value system and then the behaviours that reflect that. You’re going to always behave the way you believe. You might be able to mask it for little while, but sooner or later your behaviours are going to reflect what you truly believe.”

3. Trust is a must for leaders to be able to communicate and inspire action. It’s very much impacted by both the integrity and the transparency of each leader. In offering up some practical tips on how to foster trust as a leader, Dr. Marla Gottschalk observes:

“We've all experienced a situation where trust is tested. A leadership decision that seemed to undermine the long-term health of relationships.” She goes on to observe, “workplace trust is easily bruised—yet not as easily repaired.”

4. Recognition and celebration are fuel. They help individuals and teams recognize that they’re accomplishing things and that their contributions matter. Recognition needs to be specific and happen in real time.


Bringing all of this together is what leaders do and how they create value. It’s how they create connected organizations. If you’ve got any questions on this article, or leadership in general, please feel free to reach out.

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Brad Palmer

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