The term ‘leadership’ has been hijacked

No, this is not a political post.

However, the election and the events of the past year have revealed to us that many people see the same thing quite differently. In a ballroom full of hundreds of business leaders after a recent keynote speech I gave about the attributes of 21st Century Leadership, many people approached me afterward.

A handful of them wanted to share  their thoughts on how the new president of the United States of America is an example of an iconic leader. Another handful of people approached me separately (and unknowingly of the other comments) about how the current president was a horrifying example of leadership gone awry.

I’ll remind you again that this post is not about politics. In fact, neither was my speech. Not one word was spoken about it in my keynote.

George Bernard Shaw once said, “The single biggest problem with communication is the illusion that it has taken place.”

We think we understand what it means to be a leader or we’ve communicated it clearly with those on our team, but unfortunately the term “leadership” has been hijacked. We use the term all the time in every day life and within the teams and companies we serve, but its meaning has been lost in translation. Around the conference table or board meeting, you might get 10 different definitions of what it means to be a leader.

So what are leaders, teams and organizations doing to grow leaders in a time when the word itself has been hijacked? Well, here are a few of what the best are doing:

  • Clarify your meaning. The most important first step is to help clarify what compelling leadership looks like to your people. What are the attributes that bring out the best in others, stimulate progress and deliver results? What kind of leaders do they want to become? The best places name the attributes and link them to specific actions and behaviors on the job.
  • Make it a two-way street. Involve your people. It’s not only about what the boss dictates is the most compelling form of leadership (a one-way street). The process to discern the true meaning of leadership is not about talking at people, but is about talking with people. The most effective leaders and teams dive into conversations that align their definitions, together.
  • Eat regularly together. I remind companies all the time that developing people and culture is not a drive-thru experience. Once you have entered into a compelling journey to define what compelling leadership looks like for your team, the best cultures are committed to ongoing development focused on strengthening the actions and behaviors they’ve identified. They are committed to eating (developing) together.

You have the ability to steal the term “leadership” back for your team and company. It doesn’t happen overnight, but it does require intentional steps along the way. Don’t let such a powerful term float into ambiguity. Lead the change you want.

What does compelling leadership look like to you?


Jason V. Barger is a globally celebrated keynote speaker, leadership coach and author of “Thermostat Cultures,” “Step Back from the Baggage Claim” and “ReMember.” He is founder of Step Back Leadership Consulting, a Columbus-based company that works with businesses and organizations worldwide.