When was the last time you read a leadership job description? We have job descriptions for every position under the sun, but I’ve yet to see one for leaders. Virtually every job description you’ll read lists “leadership ability” as a quality/characteristic/attribute that is valued, and in fact, most list it as a requirement.

So why is it we place so much value in leaders, when we can’t even define leadership? In today’s column, I’ll discuss the importance of understanding the role of a leader BEFORE you place someone in a leadership role.

Every major corporation on the face of the planet has a leadership development program, but I challenge you to find a definition of leadership anywhere in the curriculum. I find it nothing short of astonishing that billions of dollars are spent each year on leadership training, leadership development, leadership coaching, running high-potential programs, etc. when the companies and individuals implementing these initiatives can’t even tell you what they’re trying to achieve. Here’s the thing – how do you hire, train, and develop to a standard that doesn’t exist?

In the absence of a clear definition of leadership, the reality is many of today’s leaders are suffering from an identity crisis.  The magnitude of this crisis can range from distorted, diluted, destructive, and in some cases a deranged form of what people inaccurately define as leadership when not held to a clearly articulated, well-defined standard. Because those in leadership roles have failed to define leadership in an acceptable fashion, society has allowed the practice of leadership to be commoditized, which in turn, has made it all too common for non-leaders to assume leadership positions thus continuing the devolution of leadership as a practice.

When we devalue the worth of leadership, it only follows many people will, in turn, devalue their worth as a leader. Many leaders today simply do not understand what leadership is, which is precisely why we find ourselves in a crisis of leadership. I would suggest much of what we view today being represented as leadership is actually un leadership – a cheap imitation of the real thing by those who are role-playing but clearly are not leading.

When leaders become lost and confused, it doesn’t just impact them – it creates a ripple effect through an organization with a destructive force much more closely resembling a tsunami. Leadership isn’t about maximizing a W-2, and it’s not about personal glory or media attention. Put simply, true leadership isn’t about the leader.

Leadership is more than a title; it’s a privilege and therefore a burden of the highest responsibility. Nothing is more dangerous than a leader who loses sight of their real purpose – to serve something greater than themselves. Leadership is about qualities that recognize others while bringing out the best in them. Leadership cannot flourish with small minds, thinking about small things, in small ways.

In thinking about the comments I’ve received from readers on the topic of leadership I noticed an interesting paradox…while many of you vehemently disagree on the effectiveness (or lack thereof) of different leadership styles, most of you are in total agreement on the qualities and attributes possessed by great leaders regardless of style. In further pondering this dichotomy an interesting thought came to mind – If I could genetically engineer the perfect leadership gene what qualities and characteristics would constitute the architecture of leadership DNA?

So, what traits/qualities/characteristics would my perfect leader possess?

Courage, character, humility, vision, wisdom, integrity, empathy, persistence, compassion, aggressivity, discernment, commitment, confidence, a bias to action, the ability to resolve conflict, a servant’s heart, determination, creativity, self-discipline, love, loyalty, outstanding decision making ability, engaged, authentic, transparent, a great strategic thinker, passion, a positive attitude, intelligence, great communication skills, common sense, generosity, the ability to identify and develop great talent, someone who creates a certainty of execution, attention to detail, faith, an active listener, a prolific learner, respect for others, innovative, excellent tactical capability, charisma, extreme focus, a high risk tolerance, a broad range of competencies, and the list goes on…

If any of you possess all the above attributes please forward your resume to my attention! All kidding aside, the longer my list of desirable qualities became, the more I realized the frivolity of this exercise…There is no perfect leader; only the right leader for a given situation. Great leaders have the innate ability to call on the right skills in a contextually and environmentally appropriate fashion. No single leader can possess every needed attribute. It’s not the traits you possess as a leader, but what you do with them that matters. If I were successful in my genetic engineering exercise I would no doubt have created a leader who would be driven crazy by emotional and intellectual conflicts.

So, what is real leadership?

Leadership is about giving credit not taking it, breaking down barriers not building them, destroying bureaucracies not creating them, bridging positional and philosophical gaps not setting boundaries, thinking big and acting bigger, being able to focus on short-term objectives without losing sight of long-term value, not focusing on the volume of outputs but the impact of said outputs, surrender not control, and most of all, leadership is about truly caring for those whom you serve.

Since I’ve admonished those who have failed to define leadership, let me put forth my definition for your consideration – While it’s a bit wordy, I’ve found it to inclusively articulate the principles needed for effective leadership :

“Leadership is the professed desire and commitment to serve others by subordinating personal interests to the needs of those being led through effectively demonstrating the character, experience, humility, wisdom and discernment necessary to create the trust & influence to cause the right things, to happen for the right reasons, at the right times.”

My challenge to those “playing leadership” is to abandon the practice of un-leadership. I encourage you to stop contributing to the crisis of leadership and instead begin contributing to a culture of leadership. Define leadership, hold leaders to a standard, build into others, don’t tolerate the status quo, and inspire greatness. When it comes to leadership, it’s not enough to be all you can be, you must focus on helping others become all that they can be.