What is leadership?

A simple question. With about a million right answers. I’ll start with two from well-known leaders.


For me, and for the purposes of LFWYA, leadership is about identifying how your organisation can make progress and taking proactive steps to move things in that direction. Often this is about clearing away clutter from a situation and getting to the most important central point, working out what the next step should be and then figuring out what to say, how to say it, and to whom, in order to make that next step happen.

Leading from where you are means recognising that you can do this from anywhere in the hierarchy.

It is your knowledge, experience and insight (not your role, or seniority) that determine how likely you are to identify what’s needed.

It is your personal courage, confidence and commitment to the success of your organisation that determine whether you’ll be willing to say what needs to be said to move things in the right direction.

Now, I’ll admit… It is true that “leadership roles” are often given to those who already have knowledge, experience, confidence and commitment. But people who are in such positions often misunderstand something important, or get the emphasis wrong, or fail to stand up and speak difficult or obvious truths.

Wherever you are in your organisation you have a unique perspective on every issue that might come to the table and sometimes that unique perspective will grant you access to a crucial point that others miss. Real leadership is about spotting when this happens and doing something about it.

If you notice something important, or even something obvious, that no-one else is saying, you have an opportunity to lead. Whatever your place in the organisation at that moment try to work out what to say to move things in the right direction.

Then be bold. And say it.

Where are you?

We’re used to seeing our place in terms of where we sit in an organogram. For instance, where I work I am part of a leadership layer of about 40 people, all of whom report to someone on the 7-person executive board, and as head of a large department I have 10 direct reports and overall line management responsibility for about 350 staff.

But hierarchies shift according the topic of conversation, the meeting you’re in or the situation at hand. So try thinking about your organisation more like this.


Thinking in this way fits with the traditional hierarchy approach, but is much more flexible. In particular, where people sit in the boxes changes according to what’s happening.

If you’re chairing a working group, you’re “the boss” regardless of where the others on the group sit in the normal structure. If you’ve delegated something to someone more junior than you, you usually have to behave as though they’re the boss (so you don’t undermine them). In some conversations the people who normally report to you become simply colleagues.

When you have an opportunity to lead (see this post for what this means) you have to assess where you are in this picture, noting the situation at hand and the other people involved.

Ask yourself… Do I need to lead from above, below, within or from the side?

Then adjust your approach accordingly.