The Art of Leadership



Between the ages of 12 and 18, much of my free time was spent participating in the Air Cadets program.  Some kids go to camp, some work part-time and I went to Cadets.  I met great friends, learned new skills, and received some solid leadership training.  I still recall the definition they taught us:

“Leadership is the art of influencing human behaviour in order to accomplish a mission in the manner desired by the leader.”

~Canadian Forces definition of leadership, circa 1990

While there was dubious value in memorizing this definition there are some parts of it that I like. I agree, leadership is very much an art. There is no formula for dealing with people, no recipe for getting them to do what you want.  And make no mistake,  the most important part of that definition is that leadership is all about influencing people’s behaviour.  But how do we do that? Well, that’s the million dollar question, and one I hope we’ll be exploring together here.

 I have one beef  with this definition: it seems to place more emphasis on the second half of the definition, accomplishing a mission in the manner desired by a leader than on the first part. Which makes sense, to a certain extent, if you remember that the definition came from the Canadian military. Mission, always the Mission, was a mantra that was repeated over and over again. But that’s a scary definition and implies that the ends justify the means. It also implies that the leader knows the manner in which they want the mission accomplished but that’s not always the case.  Even in the military. I would argue that part of being an effective leader is involving your team in the solution process. 

In 2005, the Canadian Forces published new leadership manuals, with the following change to the definition of leadership:

CF leadership may be formally defined as directing, motivating, and enabling others to accomplish the mission professionally and ethically, while developing or improving capabilities that contribute to mission success. Leadership in the Canadian Forces: Doctrine


Not as easy to memorize, but definitely puts the emphasis on the people side of things. Also, I love the subtle shift to enabling others to accomplish the mission.  The leader is now responsible for contributing to mission success, but doesn’t have to operate in a vacuum any more.

And to me, that’s what leadership is about. You can’t be a leader if you’re the only one involved. Leadership is about bringing people together for a purpose. Whether it’s to attack a trench, ship boxes, serve a client or change the world. But the challenge is not coming up with something to do, there are lots of great ideas out there. The hard part is getting the team to work together, past the individual issues, past the interpersonal issues, past the assumptions and the egos so that the team can do what individuals working by themselves can’t.

Which brings me to my definition of leadership:

Leadership is the courage to bring people together and the art of engaging them so that they can accomplish great things.

So why bother starting with a definition? Because I think it’s easy to get lost and wander around this rather fluffy subject and forget what we’re actually trying to do. In order to figure out how to be an effective leader, or better yet, a great leader, I think we need to be sure we’re talking about the same thing. My definition isn’t restricted to people in official, I’m-in-charge positions.  It can apply to a manager trying to get their team to ship a product on time or it can apply to parents trying to make their family unit a place where everyone can thrive. It can apply to teachers, engaging their students and it can apply to someone who wants to start fundraising for a cause that they’re passionate about.

It’s not about strategy. It’s not about winning.

For me, it’s about helping to bring the best out in people.

So what’s your definition of leadership?

3 thoughts on “The Art of Leadership

  • Posted on August 6, 2013 at 5:05 pm

    I have come across many “accidental” leaders throughout my life. I am always amazed at how naturally they seem to be “followed” (I am not sure this is the word I am looking for but it will do for now) with the appearance of doing very little. They do not dictate or yell. They are respected because they treat others with respect. They are great listeners and talk little. I don’t have my own definition of Leadership, yet. I like your definition but I would like to attempt to come up with my own. I am curious – would your definition of Leadership be the same as your definition of a Leader – someone who has the courage to bring people together and has the art of engaging them so that they can accomplish great things?

    • Posted on August 6, 2013 at 5:27 pm

      Hi Nicole! Thanks for the comment. Yes, I think that’s what a leader is. There are too many people in leadership roles that are scared of dealing with people so they just back away and send emails instead. and on the other side there are some people that have no problem bringing people together just so they have a bigger audience to listen to them speak. So in a way, I came up with my definition by trying to exclude things that make people ineffective leaders.

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