What is leadership? Such a simple question and yet one that I continue to ponder to capture its elusive nuances. I had earlier written a post on humility in leadership, but I realize that I have never really written about the definition of leadership and what it really means to me.

During my early years, leadership, as I understood it then, centred on leading people. The leader already had some substance to lead people, some authority or power, and possibly, some purpose. Leadership was built around the notion of competence.

I also had the notion that a leader had to be all-knowing and someone extraordinary, imbued with qualities that separate them from the ordinary. Never mind that, in reality, extraordinarily gifted people might actually not be great leaders, but could be arrogant, selfish or boring even! For a while, I looked at leadership purely from the dimension of a business leader or as the CEO of a company.

The attributes of a leader

But really, when you think of a leader who comes to mind? And why? If it’s a leader from the business world, is it because of the exceptional shareholder value they have created? The market share that they captured? Or is it because their product or the solution was path-breaking or disruptive? Typically, though, we think of leaders these days in terms of their material achievements, but there aren’t enough conversations around leaders with inspirational achievements. We think in boxes when we think of leadership.

Bill Gates is one of the wealthiest persons in the world — someone who, as we all know, created one of the world’s largest companies in Microsoft. He is a leader and billionaire entrepreneur who redefined materialistic success. But Gates is also one of the world’s biggest philanthropists. Through the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, Gates has given away more than $45 billion to combat poverty. Gates himself has an interesting take on leadership:

“As we look ahead into the next century, leaders will be those who empower others.” — Bill Gates

That quote made me think. If we move away from the materialistic definition of a leader, would leadership then be about empowerment? In leadership workshops, there’s an oft-related story of a man and the butterfly.

On a balmy day, a man observes a butterfly trying to emerge from the cocoon. It had made a small hole, but its body was still too large to make way through that. The man watched in fascination as it struggled and then, eventually, the butterfly became still, looking like it had given up. Troubled, the man decided to pitch in and help. He took a pair of scissors and clipped the cocoon, releasing the butterfly from its struggles. But little would he know that its struggles were just beginning. The butterfly’s shrunken wings collapsed. Its engorged body struggled to stay afloat. It simply could not fly. To his horror, the man realized that the struggle was an essential part of the butterfly’s transformation. The tight cocoon was meant to be that way so that the butterfly’s wings get stronger with the effort, enabling it to eventually fly.

There’s a leadership lesson in that story — a beautiful metaphor on how leaders can transform us.

Leaders need to empower others more rather than just act as solution providers.

The best leaders recognize when to guide others to solve their problems and allow them the freedom to find their wings. When leading organizations or even leading teams, too often we get caught in wanting to offer solutions and advice to those we see as struggling. But how can you support those on your team, so they are in charge of problem-solving and building their own solutions? Can we let go enough without fearing relinquishing control?

We can think of this even beyond the confines of the organization. We interact with different leaders from different walks of life. From my early notions of what makes a leader, over the last two decades, I have now come to think of leadership differently, recognizing leaders in all the varied roles they play. Leaders who carry these roles with dignity, grace, humility, and acumen. Let’s take the current Pope Francis, who is the spiritual head of the Catholic Church. How would we define leadership in this context? Is it about inspiring compassion or embracing change to transform? Take the famous Field Marshal Sam Manekshaw who inspired courage and respect. How do we define leadership in the Army? Why was he considered a great leader? Mother Teresa, who worked quietly for the underprivileged in the by-lanes of Kolkata, inspired similar respect as a leader. From Gates to Pope to Manekshaw to Mother Teresa, these are all leaders in different roles. For each of them, success can be defined differently. And so, would their leadership attributes be different too?

Defining a leader

A leader can be from many walks of life. But as I moved through my mind’s musings on leadership, I came down to this one persistent thought.

A leader, in the end, is the one who creates an admirable, inspirational impact.

I have begun to trace the path that truly great leaders have taken, imagining their purpose in life, and the models of success and experience that they have created in the fulfillment of that purpose. Inspiration, influence, and impact: these were the three attributes that stood out for me.

At the core of this insight, I believe that a leader inspires others. But what are we inspired by?

We are inspired by the actions of authenticity and genuineness of purpose and purity of thought, consistency of effort, and the selflessness to serve.

These are my conclusions. Your thoughts from observing leaders you admire?