What Leadership Really Means

There's a lot of talk about leadership these days. But what does it really mean to be a leader? Is it about having a title or position? Is it about being the loudest voice in the room? Or is there something more to it than that?

As someone who has been in leadership positions for many years, I've had a front-row seat to what true leadership looks like. And let me tell you, it's not always what you might think. Leadership isn't about dictating orders or being the center of attention. It's about much more than that.

Leaders are not born, they are made

Leaders emerge from all walks of life, reflecting the talents and abilities they have developed. It is a mistake to believe that leadership is an unteachable trait; rather, it can be practiced and refined as one forms meaningful connections with other people.

Leadership skills can be learned through diverse experiences: from sports to extracurricular activities, to academics. Additionally, mentors can impart wisdom based on their experience.

In short, leaders are not made overnight; the road to success takes practice, hard work, and dedication. These efforts will reward the aspiring leader with tools that are invaluable in any setting.

Anyone can be a leader

Leadership is not a trait that can be achieved easily; it takes strong dedication, passion, and ambition to become an effective leader. For example, to lead might mean recognizing strengths in those you lead, determining goals and objectives, making sound decisions, and setting a good example for others.

However, you will find that everyone you ask will define leadership differently depending on their background, experience, current role, and, sometimes, even the mood they are in. As the follower needs change, so do the demands on their leaders.

This means that in whatever context someone is following you, you are their leader and have some responsibility as such. If you are coordinating a few peers to work on an academic paper together, you are their leader and there are expectations. If you are teaching a class at church, you are the leader and there are expectations. Perhaps you are the one your friends go to to organize group events, you are leading, and there are expectations in that context.

You have certainly been a leader in one or more contexts. Below, we explore a few important qualities of leaders that are universal.

Three important qualities of a good leader are honesty, integrity, and courage

I am often asked, “What do you expect of a leader.” The answer depends on whom they will be leading. If they have no direct reports, for example, I don’t expect them to have a refined skill of developing others, however, I do expect them to be excellent at building relationships.

There are three qualities that I find to be universal in all effective leaders I have had, and I expect them of myself and those who lead with me: honesty, integrity, and courage.

A leader is someone that guides and influences others, and possessing certain qualities is integral to becoming an effective leader. Honest leaders create an environment of trust and openness that allows teams to “fail forward”, learn from one other’s mistakes, openly offer feedback, and engage in the momentum they create together without fear.

Many confuse honesty and integrity. I can be honest in everything I communicate, building trust every day, but never meeting a deadline or keeping a promise. We will often refer to these people as, “honest, but unreliable.” This behavior damages integrity. I can also be honest but lack a moral center.

Integrity is key when it comes to being a positive role model, and exhibiting sound moral character when faced with tough decisions can be the difference between success and failure. At its most basic, integrity is doing what we say will do based on values we share transparently. Anything from a promise to a goal, to a deadline impacts our integrity.

Lastly, courage takes leadership to a whole other level – empowering followers to reach for greatness and pursue their dreams despite adversity. This may appear to conflict with building an environment rooted in trust since when there is the trust we should not have fear, but this is different. Taking smart risks takes courage and without risk-taking, there is no meaningful growth or innovation.

These three qualities, along with many others, are key components of what makes an exemplary leader.

A leader must be able to inspire others to achieve greatness

It takes a remarkable person to be able to lead others to their fullest potential. And this is especially true when it comes to inspiring others to great achievements. A leader must possess the skill of motivating people and encouraging everyone on the team to give their best effort.

This means they must act as the facilitator between a group’s idea and its execution, providing guidance and support while communicating effectively with members of their team. It also entails having a passion for conquering goals and celebrating milestones.

A leader is someone who makes things happen

True leaders don't follow the status quo. They challenge established practices and inspire others to push boundaries. From Fortune 500 companies to mom-and-pop stores, in the sports arena to politics, it is those individuals who can accurately assess the challenges at hand and then take bold action that drives success.

Action is key.

A leader not only has a vision but also knows how to communicate that vision and rally people around it. Leadership isn't transactional, it's inspirational—anchored with integrity, perseverance, and commitment.

Ultimately, it is a leader's willingness to take risks, go against the grain, push forward despite obstacles, and lead by example that will make a real difference in achieving any goal or concept.

Leaders are not afraid to take risks

Leaders have the confidence to take risks that others may be too shy or scared to consider. They understand that calculated risks are necessary to create progress, and more importantly, growth.

Taking risks is a key component of learning and growing both personally and professionally – it's how mistakes can be made, lessons learned, and successes celebrated. These risks must be approached with thoughtful consideration. Embracing the unknown means actively seeking the facts and taking purposeful action based on what could come out of those decisions.

True leaders recognize the importance of risk-taking and remain unafraid to tackle unfamiliar territory for those they lead.