What Leadership is Not


[This is a post by Matt Ham who writes about clearly defining what you seek in life. Specifically, redefining what it means to be rich. He has a forthcoming book titled: You Make My Life Rich: A Journey of Redefining What it Means to be Rich. Matt shares stories, speaks, and coaches on these principles at www.mattham.com. In addition, Matt has an eBook I Am Here: Becoming Unbroken, a testimony of how he began to understand deeper meaning of a rich life. You can pick up a free copy and join the Live Richly Community by clicking here.]

In my professional career, I’ve come across many so-called leaders.

Quite honestly, there’s been an internal struggle with some because their leadership felt like nothing more than a positional designation. Had their job title not contained manager, supervisor, or director, I wouldn’t have had any inclination to be led anywhere.

This caused me to question.

What is leadership?

I went back to an odd place to find, not the answer, but possibly a suggestion.

My high school yearbook.

You know those uncomfortable photos where you don a fake tuxedo top, tilt your head ever so slightly, muster up a cheesy grin, and become forever blessed with an image that is burned into your brain.

In our yearbook, not only did they require the awkward photo, but they also asked for a quote to accompany each headshot. A way to leave your mark. Your chance to say what, for four years, you’ve been trying to understand.

The yearbook quote is a huge deal.

For an 18-year old, you’re not sure about much. Certainty is limited to the reality that you don’t eat in the cafeteria unless you have to. Other than that, who knows.

What would you possible say?

Most of the one-liners are attributed to popular culture. Quips and quotes from the latest band craze or possibly something pulled from an inspirational poster that you’ve seen in the library.

Lately I’ve been developing content for a leadership course and as I was wrestling with my thoughts, I remembered that my high school yearbook quote had something to do with leadership. I’m not sure why or how I remembered that, but I did.

As I flipped through the pages to remember what words I might have chosen, I came upon my all-too-familiar picture and beside it, read these words:

“Leadership is an ability, not a position.”

I can’t tell you where that came from if I tried, but it hit me right between the numbers. It was exactly what I had been wrestling with. My own words from fourteen years ago spoke volumes into my life today.

Leadership has less to do with a title and more to do with an ability that one must recognize and harness. The title is circumstantial. As long as it is the focus, leadership will never flourish.

I believe we look for the title to validate a need within ourselves. A need to matter. A need to prove our worth.

Rather true leadership is something more. It comes from within. A light, a spark, waiting to become a burning flame.

Something you didn’t put there, but something that was placed inside you when you were born.

To harness it is to understand qualities and characteristics that are essential to master. Skills and traits that we must perfect.

Responsibility. Integrity. Courage. Humility

A diligent commitment to become that which we were created to be.

A leader.

The list of traits and characteristics goes on, but the truth is, we lead people every day. It has little to do with our age, our social status, our geography, or our background. It has everything to do with our willingness to recognize the opportunity.

Our willingness to swim upstream – against the flow.

Our decision to lead.

My challenge to you today is this:

Understand that leadership is within you, waiting for you to recognize it and let it shine.

Questions: Why is good leadership important?  What is the greatest characteristic of true leadership?

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

  • As I study Colossians 3 for a lesson I am teaching, I realize that true leadership focuses on others instead of self. At the same time, a good leader sets the example of how to live and interact with others in relationships. This is important because we encourage others to make right choices and to live their best selves instead of living just for themselves. In that, they truly live.

    • Kari – AMEN! When Jesus taught his disciples, he said you did not come to be aerved, but to serve. Martin Luther King Jr said that ones life should be lost in service to others. Thanks for your comments!

      • Alan Allard

        Kari and Matt, the topics of focusing on others and serving are important. I also know your comments were brief and I have no idea what your full thoughts on the matter are, so my response here isn’t directed at what either of you said.

        I think there is a lot of confusion about “self” and “service” when it comes to life or leadership. The quote from Jesus about not coming to serve rather to be served, can be misunderstood and mis-used and often is. For instance, Jesus was as comfortable with being served as he was with serving.

        As for “self,” I don’t know what Dr. King was trying to convey with the statement of losing one’s life through service. My guess he was emphasizing the need to give and not just receive. Without a strong foundation of self-worth, self-confidence and self-love, leaders can easily get out of balance and lose their bearings, their family, their friends and their physical, mental emotional and spiritual health. Others are important, but not more important than self.

        • Alan – there cannot be a neglect of self. You’re absolutely right, but there does have to be an understanding and respect for everyone else’s story and purpose, yes?

          As for Jesus, I feel like He was implying that His primary objective was sacrifice. But yes, He is also worshiped. The inference is “this is not about you.”

          • Alan Allard

            Matt, thanks for your additional thoughts. I agree with “there does have to be an understanding and respect for everyone else’s story and purpose, yes?”

            Concerning, “This is not about you”– I see far too many people taking self out of the picture or downplaying self and the importance of self. I am not more important than anyone else, true. The flip side of that is no one else is more important than me. So, it is always about the other person…and it’s always about me.

  • Alan Allard

    Dan, for your second question, I don’t think there is a “greatest” characteristic of leadership, meaning one key trait of an effective leader.

    As for your first question, good leadership is important for so many reasons. Why do we follow any given leader for any leangth of time? We are attracted to their vision, their passion, their courage and their plan to bring their vision (which we want to be a part of) to life. Related to that, they help us to see more in ourselves than we’ve seen and they give us an environment and a process to challenge ourselves, to grow and to transform, and to do something meaningful. In some way or the other, leaders help us to fulfill our desires, whatever they may be. There’s more, but that’s part of it.

    • Love these thoughts Alan! Leaders have a way of empowering you to your greatest person, don’t they? As for traits, I’d agree that they’re are many. I’ve always appreciated a leader who was humble myslef.

      • Alan Allard

        Matt, I didn’t notice that you wrote the post for this one, my apologies. I agree with you about humility. What is sometimes called “enlightened leadership” brings humility into the discussion. I’ve never know a great leader to be without a a strong ego, but they also respect those around them and give them unbridaled opportunity to do what they do best. That doesn’t happen often, but when it does, it’s a beautifull thing to see.

        • I have a principle in my book that I call “humble yourself with confidence” it’s essentially toeing that line where both exist and fuel each other. Great thoughts!

  • Excellent post. Enjoyed the prose. In my opinion and experience, without strong leadership failure in imminent. I think one of the keys to being a strong leader is belief in the goal and the strength and determination to not compromise or sway from it.

    • Floyd – there’s something to be said for making a decision and sticking to it! Good or bad, just make it right!

  • “What is the greatest characteristic of true leadership?”
    For me – interest in self-growth. I’ve seen some leaders who leads just because people picked them. The problem with thinking that when people wanting you to lead is you might feel you are already a great person. Socially, leaders are said to sit on top while the followers the bottom.

    This makes it easier for them to discount the need for self-growth. Leaders need to know that they are not leading because they are put into the position; they are leading because they want to grow both themselves and their followers. And if they don’t have an interest to grow themselves, imagine what will happen to their followers.

    Thanks for the post, Matt.

  • Thanks Wan! True leaders are growing and inspiring folks to come along!

  • Great post Matt, a lot of value!

  • Matt, great Leadership is important because it shows others that it exists. Take for instance Donald Sterling of the LA Clippers and his Leadership. Its non existent. Lucky for him however, that he has many employees that don’t feel the same way he does. Great Post!

  • DS

    Always interesting to see where comments head.

    Leadership sets the tone for all others to follow. Look at Abraham, Noah, Moses, Joshua, the Judges, the kings and it is crystal clear (even today the same rings true). We lead ourselves, we lead our homes, we lead our communities, we lead our cities, we lead our counties, we lead our states, we lead our regions, we lead our country. The question is, where are we leading them and who defines “good leadership”?

    • Great question David!!! We need more leaders who will lead us toward a better and positive future. Thank you for sharing your wisdom with us.

  • A key to leadership… making sure what you believe is evidenced by how you live and not just by what you say.

    • DS

      Very well said 😉

    • Amen Kent! Our words must match our actions/life. Thank you for sharing.

  • This is very insightful. Leadership is an ability, not a position has a lot of truth to it.

    A trait I’d like to add is self-improvement. Good leaders are always trying to improve themselves. Whether it’s interpersonal skills or something else, they’re pushing themselves to do better. I guess you could say that good leaders lead themselves first and others second.

    • Great addition, self-improvement is so essential. It allows us to be an effective leader. Thank you for reading and sharing.