Personal Development

What is Leadership? Understanding the Key Principles and Practices of Effective Leadership

What is Leadership

“A leader is best when people barely know he exists, when his work is done, his aim fulfilled, they will say: we did it ourselves.” — Lao Tzu

A simple definition of leadership is the art and science of influencing others to bring ideas to life and achieve shared goals.

But a more profound way to think about leadership is…

Leadership is the art of harnessing the power of the human spirit to achieve greatness.  Leadership done well is the catalyst that ignites the passions of individuals and transforms them into a cohesive and unstoppable force.

Whether you’re an aspiring leader or a seasoned professional, this article offers key insights into the art and science of modern leadership.

I’ve led teams at Microsoft for more than 20 years including remote and virtual teams.  I’ve learned so much about leadership from so many great leaders around me, not just at Microsoft, but in all kinds of organizations and industries, from public sector to private sector, and all around the world.

I’ll share what I’ve learned as best I can so that more people can “stand on the shoulders of giants” and become a better leader.

Let’s dive in…

What is Leadership and Why Care?

Leadership is the act of using social influence to inspire others towards a common goal, maximizing their efforts in the process.

Leadership is a complex and multi-faceted topic that has been studied and debated for centuries.

It involves influencing others to achieve a common goal and is critical for the success of organizations and society.  The best leaders possess a combination of personal qualities, such as empathy and emotional intelligence, and technical skills, such as effective communication and decision-making.

As the world continues to change, so too does our understanding of what it means to be an effective leader. In this article, I explore the latest thinking on modern leadership, including new approaches to developing leaders, the role of technology, and the importance of diversity and inclusion.

How I Think About Leadership

I think of leadership as influencing with a purpose.   As John Maxwell put it, leadership is influence: “Leadership is influence – nothing more, nothing less.” John Maxwell

I agree with John Maxwell that leadership is influence.  It’s not about position or role.

In my experience, the whole point of leadership is to help people go and grow where they have not gone before. To me the difference between good leadership and great leadership lies in how you achieve the vision, how well you pave the path for others, and who people become through the process.

When leadership is done well, people are inspired by the vision, they generate energy, and they achieve great things, together, and become greater versions of themselves.

In one line, I might say: Leadership is the empowerment of others in the direction of a shared vision.

My Leadership Philosophy

As a leader, I believe you need to know your leadership philosophy, in addition to your strengths and weaknesses.

Here is my leadership philosophy in a nutshell:

  • Leadership starts from the inside out.  Learn how to lead yourself first, before you lead others, so that you can become a better leader.
  • There are thought leaders and there are people leaders, and sometimes both, but being good at one does not necessarily make you good at the other.
  • Leadership takes heart. You gain leadership by giving your power away to others, by empowering them and building trust that you have their best interest at heart.
  • Focusing on strengths is a force multiplier for everyone.  The best thing a leader can do is to bring out the best in others.
  • Establishing a vision, mission, and values helps create clarity, bring people together around a common purpose, and create culture.
  • Culture eats strategy for breakfast, but strategy is a skill that more leaders should learn to grow their competence and capabilities, and to help teams navigate challenges with skill.
  • As a leader, you need to balance connection and conviction so that you can handle the tough stuff under stress.
  • The best leaders grow more leaders and give people chances to rise and shine.

Helpful Leadership Definitions

Here are leadership definitions that I’ve found useful:

  1. Leadership is a process of social influence, which maximizes the efforts of others, towards the achievement of a goal.”Forbes
  2. “In its simplest form, leadership is influencing other people to follow. Therefore, anyone who can influence people to follow them has leadership qualities.”
  3. Leadership is the potential to influence behavior of others. It is also defined as the capacity to influence a group towards the realization of a goal. Leaders are required to develop future visions, and to motivate the organizational members to want to achieve the visions.” — Management Study Guide
  4. “Leadership is coordinating action to realize the future you care about.” Rick Maguire, Futurity
  5. “Leadership is the capacity to translate vision into reality.”Warren Bennis
  6. “As we look ahead into the next century, leaders will be those who empower others.” Bill Gates
  7. The definition of leadership is to influence, inspire and help others become their best selves, building their skills and achieving goals along the way.”  — Tony Robbins
  8. “Leadership is a process of social influence, which maximizes the efforts of others, towards the achievement of a goal.” — Kevin Kruse, CEO of

What are the Characteristics of Great Leaders?

Leadership Characteristics

What are the characteristics or traits of great leaders?   According to Bill Sim’s, whenever he asks students in his leadership course, he gets a common set of answers:

  1. Good Communication Skills
  2. Trustworthiness
  3. Willingness to Listen
  4. Knowledge and Experience
  5. Good Attitude
  6. Accountability
  7. Ability to Motivate
  8. Integrity
  9. Courage
  10. Ability to Stay Organized
  11. Ability to Inspire Respect
  12. Positive Reinforcement

It’s noteworthy that John Maxwell identified 21 qualities of more effective leaders.  You can explore the 21 qualities in depth in Maxwell’s book, The 21 Indispensable Qualities of a Leader: Becoming the Person Others Will Want to Follow.   (The audiobook of The 21 Indispensable Qualities of a Leader is also worth it, but I wish it was read by John Maxwell.)

Are Leadership Traits and Characteristics the Same Thing?

No, characteristics and traits are not the same thing, although they are often used interchangeably.

Characteristics are external and observable behaviors or attributes that describe a person. They can change based on the situation and are often shaped by a person’s experiences and environment.

Traits, on the other hand, are internal and relatively stable personality characteristics that are thought to be largely innate and biologically based. Traits are relatively stable over time and across situations.

In the context of leadership, characteristics might include effective communication, empathy, and decision-making skills, while traits might include qualities such as extroversion, emotional intelligence, and openness to experience. Both characteristics and traits can contribute to a person’s effectiveness as a leader, but the distinction between the two is important to consider when evaluating leadership potential and development.

What are the Greatest Leadership Principles of All Time?

Here is a short list of some of the greatest leadership principles of all time:

  1. Vision: Having a clear, inspiring vision for the future and the ability to communicate it effectively to others.
  2. Authenticity: Being true to oneself and consistently acting in accordance with one’s values and beliefs.
  3. Emotional Intelligence: Understanding and managing one’s own emotions, as well as the emotions of others, to build strong relationships.
  4. Influence: The ability to persuade and inspire others to achieve a common goal.
  5. Servant Leadership: Putting the needs of others before one’s own, and leading through service and support.
  6. Empowerment: Giving others the power to make decisions and act independently to achieve shared goals.
  7. Adaptability: The ability to adapt and change in response to new information, challenges, and opportunities.
  8. Resilience: The ability to bounce back from setbacks, maintain perspective, and continue to move forward.
  9. Communication: The ability to articulate ideas and information effectively, both verbally and non-verbally.
  10. Continuous Learning: A commitment to personal and professional growth, and a willingness to learn and improve.

These principles have stood the test of time and are considered essential for effective leadership in any context.

What are Key Leadership Skills?

Leadership Skills

In my experience, effective leaders are capable, competent, and work on the following leadership skills:

  1. Change
  2. Connection
  3. Courage
  4. Culture Change
  5. Emotional Intelligence (EQ)
  6. Influence
  7. Motivation
  8. Storytelling
  9. Strengths
  10. Strategy
  11. Vision

For more in-depth exploration of these topics, see Leadership Skills.

Leadership is Not About Position

Leadership being “not about position” means that an individual can lead and exert influence over others, regardless of their formal or official title or role within an organization.

Leadership skills and qualities such as vision, communication, motivation, and decision-making are more important than one’s job title or seniority.

A person can lead from any level of an organization, and a formal position of authority is not a prerequisite for effective leadership.

What are the Limits of Traditional Management Styles?

Traditional leadership is limited by its focus on hierarchy and control, where decisions are made from the top-down and followers are expected to comply.

This approach can be limiting in today’s dynamic and rapidly changing world where creative problem solving, innovation, and adaptability are key to success. In a traditional leadership model, the leader may struggle to effectively engage and motivate their followers, leading to low morale and limited buy-in to organizational goals.

Additionally, this model can stifle creativity and limit the flow of new ideas, as followers may feel afraid to speak up or challenge the status quo.

The bottom line is that traditional leadership can be limiting in its lack of flexibility and inability to effectively tap into the potential of all members of a team.

How is Leadership Evolving?

Modern Leadership

Leadership is evolving to address the challenges posed by a rapidly changing world, including inclusion, sustainability, innovation, and remote work.

  • Inclusion: Leaders are recognizing the importance of creating a diverse and inclusive workplace, where all employees feel valued and empowered to contribute. This requires a shift from traditional, top-down leadership styles to more collaborative approaches that prioritize open communication, active listening, and equal representation.
  • Sustainability: As awareness of environmental issues grows, leaders are being called upon to adopt sustainable practices and prioritize the long-term well-being of the planet. This involves making conscious decisions about the impact of their operations and taking steps to reduce waste and minimize environmental harm.
  • Innovation: In today’s fast-paced business environment, leaders must be able to anticipate and respond to change. To foster innovation, leaders are adopting flexible, agile approaches that allow for experimentation and risk-taking, and are creating an environment that supports creative problem solving.
  • Remote work: The COVID-19 pandemic has accelerated the trend towards remote work, and leaders must adapt to manage teams that may be dispersed geographically. This requires a focus on clear communication, effective collaboration tools, and trust-building to maintain team cohesion and productivity.

Leadership is evolving to meet the demands of a changing world, and leaders must be able to adapt and lead in new and innovative ways.

What is the New Emerging Approach to Leadership?

The emerging new approach to leadership is often referred to as transformational leadership. This approach prioritizes the growth and development of individuals and the organization as a whole, and it is characterized by the following key elements:

  1. Inspiration: Transformational leaders inspire and motivate others through a clear vision and sense of purpose.
  2. Empowerment: Transformational leaders empower their followers to take ownership of their work and make decisions that align with the organization’s goals.
  3. Development: Transformational leaders focus on developing their followers, providing them with opportunities to grow and learn.
  4. Collaboration: Transformational leaders encourage collaboration and teamwork, fostering a sense of community and shared purpose.
  5. Ethical behavior: Transformational leaders set an ethical tone for the organization, promoting values such as honesty, integrity, and fairness.

This approach to leadership contrasts with traditional leadership styles, which focus on control and hierarchy, and it is seen as more effective in fostering engagement, innovation, and long-term success. Transformational leadership is especially relevant in today’s fast-paced and rapidly changing business environment, where organizations must be agile, innovative, and responsive to change.

What is the Impact of this New Approach to Leadership?

The impact of the new, transformational approach to leadership can be significant and far-reaching. Some of the key benefits include:

  1. Increased motivation and engagement: By inspiring and empowering their followers, transformational leaders can foster a high level of motivation and engagement, leading to increased productivity and performance.
  2. Improved organizational culture: Transformational leaders create a positive and inclusive organizational culture that supports collaboration and innovation, leading to a more dynamic and innovative workplace.
  3. Better decision making: By encouraging collaboration and the active involvement of all team members, transformational leaders can ensure that decisions are made based on the collective wisdom of the group, leading to better outcomes.
  4. Increased innovation: Transformational leaders foster an environment that supports risk-taking and experimentation, leading to increased innovation and a more adaptive organization.
  5. Better leadership development: By focusing on the development of their followers, transformational leaders create a pipeline of future leaders and promote leadership throughout the organization.

The transformational approach to leadership has the potential to drive significant positive change within organizations, by fostering engagement, innovation, and a culture of continuous improvement.

How Can Leaders Empower Employees?

Empowering Employees

Leaders can empower employees by taking the following actions:

  1. Providing autonomy: Leaders can give employees the freedom to make decisions and take ownership of their work, allowing them to feel in control of their job and more fulfilled in their role.
  2. Encouraging innovation: Leaders can create a culture of innovation by encouraging employees to share their ideas and take risks, leading to a more adaptive and dynamic organization.
  3. Sharing information: Leaders who are transparent and share information with their employees can help build trust and foster a sense of shared purpose.
  4. Providing resources: Leaders can provide their employees with the resources and support they need to succeed, such as training, equipment, and mentorship.
  5. Recognizing achievements: Leaders who recognize and reward employees for their achievements can improve motivation and encourage them to continue performing at a high level.
  6. Offering opportunities for growth: Leaders who provide their employees with opportunities for professional development, such as training and leadership programs, can help them reach their full potential and improve their skills and abilities.
  7. Fostering collaboration: Leaders who encourage collaboration and teamwork can create a sense of community and shared purpose, leading to increased productivity and better outcomes.

In summary, empowering employees requires a combination of autonomy, innovation, transparency, resources, recognition, growth opportunities, and collaboration, and leaders who prioritize these actions can help their employees reach their full potential and drive organizational success.

How Can Leaders Communicate Effectively?

Leaders can communicate effectively by following these best practices:

  1. Active listening: Leaders who actively listen to their employees and demonstrate that they value their input can build trust and foster a sense of mutual understanding.
  2. Clarity: Leaders who communicate clearly and succinctly can ensure that their message is understood and reduces confusion.
  3. Adaptability: Leaders who are able to adapt their communication style to different audiences and situations can ensure that their message is received and understood effectively.
  4. Consistency: Leaders who are consistent in their communication and follow through on their promises can build credibility and trust with their employees.
  5. Empathy: Leaders who show empathy and understanding in their communication can create a positive and supportive work environment and improve morale.
  6. Encouragement: Leaders who use positive and encouraging language in their communication can help their employees feel valued and motivated.
  7. Two-way communication: Leaders who foster open and two-way communication can ensure that their employees feel heard and have a voice in the decision-making process.

Effective communication requires a combination of active listening, clarity, adaptability, consistency, empathy, encouragement, and two-way communication. Leaders who prioritize these practices can improve their communication skills and build strong relationships with their employees.

How Can Leaders Bring Out the Best in Their Employees?

Leaders have the ability to impact employees in a number of ways. Some of the best ways include:

  1. Communication: Leaders who communicate clearly and effectively can foster a sense of understanding and trust among employees, leading to increased motivation and engagement.
  2. Recognition and appreciation: Leaders who recognize and appreciate their employees for their hard work and achievements can improve morale and motivation.
  3. Empowerment: Leaders who empower their employees to take ownership of their work and make decisions can increase their sense of autonomy and fulfillment, leading to improved performance.
  4. Development opportunities: Leaders who provide their employees with opportunities for professional growth and development can help them reach their full potential and improve their skills and abilities.
  5. Support and encouragement: Leaders who provide support and encouragement to their employees during difficult times and help them overcome challenges can foster a sense of teamwork and solidarity.
  6. Fair and transparent processes: Leaders who create and maintain fair and transparent processes, such as performance evaluations and promotions, can help build trust and reduce uncertainty among employees.
  7. Ethical behavior: Leaders who model ethical behavior and promote a strong code of conduct can create a positive workplace culture and encourage their employees to act with integrity.

In summary, the impact that leaders have on employees can be significant, and leaders who prioritize communication, recognition, empowerment, development, support, transparency, and ethics can create a positive and productive work environment.

How is Leadership Different in a Hybrid Workplace?

Hybrid Work

Leadership in a hybrid workplace, where employees work both on-site and remotely, can be different in the following ways:

  1. Flexibility: Leaders in a hybrid workplace need to be flexible and able to adapt to changing work arrangements and the different needs of their employees.
  2. Communication: Leaders in a hybrid workplace need to be especially effective at communicating with employees who are working remotely, using technology to keep everyone connected and informed.
  3. Trust: Leaders in a hybrid workplace need to build trust with their employees and create a culture of accountability, as remote workers may not have the same level of direct supervision.
  4. Employee engagement: Leaders in a hybrid workplace need to be proactive in engaging their remote workers and ensuring that they feel connected to the organization and its goals.
  5. Collaboration: Leaders in a hybrid workplace need to foster collaboration among employees who may be working in different locations, time zones, and schedules.
  6. Technology: Leaders in a hybrid workplace need to be familiar with the technology used for remote work and be able to provide support and training to their employees as needed.
  7. Culture: Leaders in a hybrid workplace need to maintain a positive and supportive culture that values diversity, inclusivity, and work-life balance, regardless of where employees are working.

In summary, leadership in a hybrid workplace requires a different set of skills and approaches, including flexibility, effective communication, trust building, employee engagement, collaboration, technology proficiency, and a strong organizational culture.

How Should CEOs Lead in This New World?

CEO Leadership

Imagine a world where the traditional hierarchy of leadership is turned on its head, where CEOs lead not from the top down, but from the bottom up.

That’s the world we live in now, and to be an effective CEO in this new world, you need to be a “servant leader.”

What does this mean?

It means putting the needs and well-being of your employees first, creating a work environment that values creativity, innovation, and work-life balance, and encouraging your employees to take ownership of their work and make decisions.

In this new world, the most effective CEOs are those who are humble, listen to their employees, and have a deep understanding of the challenges their employees face.

They lead by example, showing their employees how to be resilient and adaptable in the face of change, and how to collaborate and work together as a team.

In addition to leading from the bottom up, effective CEOs in this new world must also embrace new technologies, embrace change, and be willing to experiment and take calculated risks. They must be visionary, seeing the big picture and charting a course for the future, but also be flexible and able to pivot when necessary.

So if you’re a CEO, don’t just sit in your corner office and bark orders, be a servant leader and empower your employees to drive your organization forward. This new way of leading will not only benefit your employees, but it will also benefit your company and ultimately your bottom line.

What is Leadership Development?

Leadership Development

Modern leadership development is a dynamic and ongoing process that equips leaders with the skills and knowledge they need to lead in today’s rapidly changing world.

It involves a combination of self-reflection, learning, and practical application of new ideas and strategies.  It focuses on emotional intelligence, agility and adaptability, and diversity, equity, and inclusion, and it is personalized to meet the unique needs of each leader.

Gone are the days of one-size-fits-all leadership training programs. Today’s leaders need personalized development plans that address their unique strengths, weaknesses, and career goals.

This can be achieved through a combination of traditional classroom-style training, online courses, coaching and mentoring, and on-the-job learning experiences.

One key aspect of modern leadership development is the focus on emotional intelligence, or the ability to understand and manage your own emotions and the emotions of others. This includes skills such as empathy, self-awareness, self-regulation, and the ability to build and maintain positive relationships with others.

In addition to emotional intelligence, modern leadership development also emphasizes the importance of agility and adaptability. Leaders must be able to identify and respond to new opportunities and challenges as they arise, and they must be comfortable working with ambiguity and uncertainty.

Finally, modern leadership development recognizes the importance of diversity, equity, and inclusion in creating high-performing teams and organizations.

Leaders must be able to understand and respect the perspectives and experiences of individuals from different backgrounds and cultures, and they must be committed to creating a work environment that values and celebrates diversity.

What are Modern Ways to Approach Leadership Development?

Leadership development is a lifelong journey, and the best approach will likely involve a combination of these methods:

  1. Coaching and Mentoring: Working one-on-one with a coach or mentor who has expertise in leadership can provide valuable guidance and feedback on specific leadership challenges.
  2. Formal Training Programs: Attending workshops, courses, and conferences can provide opportunities to learn new leadership theories and best practices, as well as network with other leaders.
  3. On-the-Job Experiences: Providing leaders with challenging projects and assignments that stretch their skills and abilities can be a powerful way to develop new leadership competencies.
  4. Self-Reflection and Self-Assessment: Encouraging leaders to reflect on their leadership style, strengths, and weaknesses, and identify areas for improvement, can help them grow and develop over time.
  5. Reading and Research: Leaders can expand their knowledge and perspective on leadership by reading books, articles, and research on leadership and management.
  6. 360-degree Feedback: Gathering feedback from employees, peers, and superiors on their leadership style and impact can provide valuable insights and help leaders identify areas for improvement.
  7. Action Learning: This approach involves learning through hands-on experience, where leaders tackle real-world challenges and reflect on their experiences to gain new insights and perspectives.

It’s important to be intentional and deliberate about developing leadership skills and to continuously seek out opportunities for growth and development.

What are Mentorship, Sponsorship, and Apprenticeship?

Mentorship, sponsorship, and apprenticeship are all relationships that involve a more experienced or knowledgeable person helping to develop and support the growth of a less experienced individual.

  1. Mentorship: Mentorship involves a mentor offering guidance, advice, and support to a mentee. This relationship is focused on developing the mentee’s skills and knowledge, and may include regular check-ins, goal-setting, and feedback.
  2. Sponsorship: Sponsorship is similar to mentorship, but with a more focused goal of advancing the sponsored individual’s career. A sponsor takes an active role in promoting the sponsored individual and advocating for their advancement within the organization.
  3. Apprenticeship: Apprenticeship is a hands-on learning experience where a more experienced individual, known as the master, teaches a less experienced individual, known as the apprentice, a specific skill or trade. This relationship is structured and often involves a set period of time, during which the apprentice works under the master’s supervision to develop their skills.

Mentorship and sponsorship are both relationships focused on developing individuals, while apprenticeship is a structured program focused on learning a specific skill or trade. All three approaches can be effective in helping individuals grow and develop, and the best approach will depend on the individual’s needs and goals.

Getting Started with Leadership

You can get started with leadership with the Getting Started with Leadership guide:

Getting Started with Leadership

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