What Is Leadership?


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Today, I’m thinking about leadership. And when I use that word “leadership,” I’m wondering if you mean what I mean, and I mean what you mean, and they mean what we mean.

You can’t just throw around words. I can’t just assume you know what I mean. Nor can I assume you believe what I believe about leadership. For sure, we cannot know that everyone in the organization shares the same understanding of leaders and leadership.

So to start, you have to create a shared vision. You have to talk about the meaning of words and the use of vocabulary. Your organization has to define what it means by leadership, build understanding and support, and perform accordingly.

In the third edition of my book, Strategic Fund Development: Building Profitable Relationships That Last, I devote an entire chapter to the art of leadership. Honestly very few original ideas—probably mostly none. But I’ve combined all my favorite readings about leadership and cobbled together my meaning.

So here are some of my thoughts:

Leadership means the willingness and ability to lead and influence others. Leadership is about learning and change, so leaders are change agents.

I’m not sure that lots of people who describe themselves as leaders are willing to serve as change agents. I’m not sure whether people equate leadership to (mostly?) change.

The best organizations are rich in leaders. This network of individuals creates a web to support your organization. Leadership acts as the glue that helps hold your organization together.

When I think of the supporting web and the glue, I think of Marian Anderson’s quote:

“Leadership should be born out of the understanding of the needs of those who would be affected by it.”

It’s tough to be a leader without followers. Or maybe not followers, but certainly participants and colleagues. Often, leadership changes from moment to moment, circumstance to circumstance. I think that’s good, albeit confusing, until we build our leadership strengths.

I think leadership exists to help accomplish group purpose. And that means that leaders are accountable to the group. Do you think your leader is accountable to the group?

I get very frustrated when I hear organizations talk about “hiring leaders with vision.” And “we need a leader whose vision will take us into the next whatever.” I realize that leaders do have visions. But I don’t think that leaders bring the vision and instill and enforce it. Instead, I believe that leaders enable the group to articulate values and create vision together.

Peter Block, author of Stewardship: Choosing Service Over Self-Interest (1993), uses the concept of stewardship to alter the conventional theory of leadership. Block’s “stewardship” incorporates accountability, partnership, empowerment, and service. He notes that leadership means initiative and responsibility without taking control and disempowering others. Leaders are partners. They retain initiative and accountability but avoid dominance and patriarchal oversight.

I’m very into systems thinking and learning organization business theories. I urge you to read Peter Senge and his colleagues. I urge you to examine how systems thinking and learning organization theories can help your organization.

So what about leadership and systems thinking and learning? Leaders help individuals and organizations learn. Leaders demonstrate the value of learning to others. Leaders are consistently and constantly learning themselves. Of course, leaders are always learning from their colleagues.

I don’t think leaders are born. I think leaders are made. Situations can help make leaders and find leaders—situations like crises and challenges and opportunities and change.

For sure, we can make more leaders. Organizations can develop leadership programs and scout leaders inside and outside. Leaders can help develop new leaders.

What do leaders do?

Leaders carry out key functions and specific tasks. Effective leaders know leadership is an art as well as a developed skill. Committed leaders actually study leadership in order to improve their own performance. Happily, there’s a wealth of writing on leadership, and more written regularly. There’s more and more research about leadership, too.

I like this grouping of leadership functions:

  • People functions – relating to the people in your organization
  • Organization functions – tasks that bring people together within the organization
  • Personal functions – focus on the leader herself
  • Community functions – highlight tasks that connect your organization to the external community

In this column, I’m sharing a few of the tasks within each of these functions. But how about you reading the chapter in my book, Strategic Fund Development, 3rd edition? How about you starting a leadership program in your organization? How about gathering together a group of colleagues to read books and articles on leadership and develop your peer learning?

Selected people functions (Learn more details in Strategic Fund Development.)

  • Value individuals
  • Gather and develop others in becoming leaders
  • Motivate others
  • Enable others

Organization functions

  • Affirm values and set (and enforce) the highest ethical standards
  • Embrace and use system thinking and learning organization business theories
  • Build adaptive capacity
  • Develop the optimum organizational culture

Personal functions

  • Delegate, but don’t abdicate
  • Take risks and make mistakes
  • Welcome criticism and learn from it

Community functions

  • Ensure that your organization is relevant to the community
  • Build a network of supporters, partners, and collaborators
  • Help build the civic capacity of your community

And how about this one?

  • ·Ensure environmental accountability, e.g., build a green organization and demonstrate that to the community

So go for it. Develop your own understanding of, and skills in, leadership. Encourage your organization and your professional association to develop leadership programs. Promote leadership in all the settings where you personally and professionally operate.

  • Simone Joyaux

    I’m at the Planned Parenthood Federation of America conference in Washington D.C. right now. President Obama just spoke – the first sitting president to speak to a PPFA gathering/conference.

    Before the president spoke, Robert Safian, editor of Fast Company spoke. He was speaking about change … which, to me, is speaking about leadership. How you manage chaos and complexity and ambiguity. How you cope with disruption – and even embrace disruption. Embracing flux and flexibility. Creating a “cadence of change.”

    Check out his article about the flux generation in Fast Company. Read the systems thinkers and learning organization theories. And enjoy.

  • Andy Carroll

    I enjoyed Ms. Joyaux’s thoughtful article on leadership, and found several parallels with the research we’ve done at the Association of Small Foundations. Our members practice a philanthropy that is agile, responsive, and close-to-the ground. From our interviews on leadership, some themes that align with Ms. Joyaux’s thoughts include:

    Leadership is indeed all about making change.

    The path to leadership for small-staff philanthropists begins with passion for an issue, and a desire to learn everything they can about the issue. As Ms. Joyaux says, “leaders are consistently and constantly learning.” Philanthropists have a unique vantage point for seeing across programs, and soaking up knowledge.

    Leaders in our field develop a vision in conversation with the many people they engage, not in isolation. Creating a vision is indeed a collective activity.

    Leaders in small-staff philanthropy “help build the civic capacity of community,” as Ms. Joyaux says.
    They do this by engaging many people in the community to draw out knowledge and experience; by convening people across the community—including those whose voices are not always heard; and by collaborating with other funders, with nonprofits, businesses, and with government agencies. As an ASF member said, “We are working to build the connective tissue among practitioners.”

    ASF agrees that leadership is not determined by birth and genes. Philanthropists become leaders by building knowledge and pursuing an issue they care deeply about, and mobilizing partners.

    We have followed Ms. Joyaux’s advice to develop our understanding of leadership, and to work to nurture leadership among our members and constituents.

    Thank you for this thoughtful essay.

    Andy Carroll
    Senior Program Manager
    Association of Small Foundations

    More on ASF’s Leadership Initiative is available on our website, at:

  • Simone Joyaux

    Thanks, Andy, for your comments. Your research and on-the-ground experience adds value to the overall conversation about leadership.

  • Paul Turcotte

    Very well written and thoughtful post. Thank you for sharing your grouping of leadership functions. I will use them in our first leadership academy meeting today. I will share the link with our group and perhaps even read it together.

    Thank you.

  • robert williams

    I do not believe leader and leadership are synonymous. A leader I theorize would be someone others agree to follow for a cause. Or the other hand, leadership involves two or more people working toward a common goal. The definition of leadership has to do more with a group’s focused intentions. Thus, the ‘Lone Ranger’ theory is not valid within this assumption. You may have leaders within the structure of leadership. But, the notion that leader and leadership are somehow identical is not accurate.