What Leadership DOES, is not What it IS

How do you define leadership?

Many people think that the topic ofleadership” is contained exclusively within the behavior patterns of the people that they have seen in positions of leadership. They have nothing else with which to compare it. This is certainly understandable, but it misses the big picture of the topic. The actions that leaders display, are not necessarily what Leadership is. Leadership, as a concept, is much larger than that.

I think the best way to unpack this phenomenon is to use another sticky subject; LOVE. It can be said that what love does, is not what it is.

What’s Love Got To Do With It?

Love and the concept of being ‘in love’ is a universally accepted condition that is evident in every culture. Within distinct cultures, the expression of love varies. It is defined by the action of what love does. Those actions of love on display broadcast a signal of love clear to all who see. For example, I love my wife Stephanie. I enjoy spending time with her and I especially enjoy experiencing new beautiful places with her. So occasionally we travel to a new place to see its beauty together for the first time.It gives us so much to talk about and it becomes a shared memory of beauty and wonderful conversation. We are in love. It is what lovers do. Or is it?

I have friends who are in love too (just like we are.) A case could be made for the idea that my friends should behave like my wife and I do, because they have the same condition we have. They are in love. Therefore they too should enjoy experiencing new beautiful places together. Truth is though, they don’t. Does that mean that they are not in love? Not at all. It just means that what love does, is not what it is. What love does in their relationship, is to ride roller-coasters together. Go figure?!?!

I think this is especially true in Leadership. What Leadership does, is not what it is. As leaders though, the trap we often fall into is to assign what leadership does, to what it is, because we feel the burden of being able to train others into it, and we need to point to it to teach about it. It could be said therefore, that Leadership is a condition that reveals itself in an infinite number of ways in response to an infinite number of circumstances.

In the end, those of us who lead in leadership seek to understand Leadership all the more so that we can more successfully teach about it and convey it to others. So we look for it continually. And when we find it, we place a magnifying glass over the example of leadership (what we’ll call here “(X)”) and point to it, so that we can all learn and improve.

This is helpful and educational, but it also has a negative connotation. It leads people to understand (as unintentional as it may be), that particular action (X) – is what Leadership does. Our inherent ‘formula/solution’ perspective then creates a new Leadership formula that shows: (X) action = Leadership. When in reality (X) is simply riding a roller-coaster, something I want nothing to do with and which doesn’t work in my world.

I absolutely concede that the actions of leaders, teach us something about their leadership. They reveal aspects of their craft and we can learn from those actions, but Leadership is more than replicating another’s action. Otherwise I should be able to express love to Stephanie on a roller-coaster ride. But do you really think this would translate to love to her? Each circumstance requires uniquely applicable solutions.

What becomes paramount in the concepts of leadership we portray to others then, is not just the action (X), but the context of the action and the motivation or intent of the leader in the action(X). These three elements combined, answer not only the action question, but why that action is appropriate and how it is applicable in those circumstances i.e the context of the situation.

Successful Successions

Attempting to address all three of these concepts when leading leaders, is a strong way to train your style of leadership. Or said another way, to transfer a leadership culture. This becomes especially important when developing a successor. Most exiting leaders not only want competence in their stead, but they also want some confidence that the ‘way we do business‘ will remain. The only way for that to happen when the originator exits the business culture is to infuse into the culture the principles for which they stand. This implies that the new decision makers must know which action (X) to choose, in any given circumstance and follow a prescribed intent or motivation.

I would submit that the three elements of action, context and motivation, come closer to describing what Leadership is than simply telling what Leadership does.

Do you agree? What do you think describes leadership? What have you seen that sticks out in your mind as an excellent example of what leadership is? I would love to get your feedback!

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Allan Kelsey is  Managing Director of Leading Leaders in Keller, TX
He can be reached at

Image Sources: farm2.static.flickr.com, img149.imageshack.us, liesdamnedlies.com, spirit2spirit.com

L2L Contributing Author


  1. Denise Scripter on January 12, 2010 at 1:36 pm

    I love this post! We all know (and probably have experienced) poor leadership. We know what that is. Allan, you did a great job at highlighting the difference between what leadership is and what it does. The best leaders I know use core knowlege and company culture to assess, and then act.

  2. Spring on January 13, 2010 at 4:42 pm

    I like your philosophical insights on leadership and love. Agree to you that leadership could not be defined by behaviors or what it does. While the three elements of action, context and motivation could not define leadership either. Similar to love, leadership is a combination of INNER qualities and mindsets which will respond wisely in appropriate actions to changing context and motivations/goals.