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Is leadership just another word for responsibility?

What is leadership? This is a question I'm constantly struggling to answer. There are numerous definitions and perspectives on leadership, but what do we mean by leadership on a practical level? After polling a wide range of people on their views on leadership, one word consistently emerges - responsibility. At its most basic, leadership appears to me to be willing to accept responsibility. Personal responsibility or responsibility for a specific result, achieving an objective, resolving a difficult situation that no one else wants to address, or feeling a sense of responsibility for the people around you - whether you are their manager or a team member. In a nutshell, leadership begins with a willingness to accept responsibility.

It's amazing how important accountability and responsibility are in conversations with ordinary leaders. Despite the visionary and heroic descriptions of leadership, leadership occurs when an individual accepts responsibility for changing something. Interpersonal conflict, a lack of strategy, poor performance, the need to create a spreadsheet, or a helping hand to a small organisation are all examples of this "something". You demonstrate leadership when you take responsibility for something and are willing to invest time and energy to address it. Not because it is expected of that person, though it may be, but because they hold personal responsibility for it. A sense of responsibility inspires leadership. You notice something that needs to be changed, improved, or repaired and decide to take on the challenge.


When we see leadership as a responsibility, we will notice acts of leadership all around us. Although we may not always recognise it as leadership, it is. Maybe it's because we're stuck with a leadership narrative that revolves around the "great man." The word "man" is intentional because we still seem to think of leaders as masculine individuals who stand in front of their country, army, or business and provide a "vision" of the future. According to Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic, "we are misled into believing that men are better leaders than women because we...commonly misinterpret displays of confidence as a sign of competence." Alternatively, confident people make better leaders than those who quietly accept responsibility for effecting change.


Reality is very different from this masculine version of leadership. You practice leadership when you desire to change something and feel responsible for it. This lack of responsibility prohibits someone like Boris Johnson from being viewed as a leader. His public statements are full of bombast and confidence and demonstrate his interest in power, being prime minister, and being a 'leader.' Yet, it is hard to make a case that he was a leader who took responsibility for the country.


A former colleague demonstrated excellent leadership, which went almost entirely unnoticed by the organisation for which this individual worked. This colleague devoted their life to resolving difficult people management issues for the benefit of the teams with which they collaborated. She never shied away from accepting responsibility for their team's problems and taking the initiative to solve them. That wasn't easy, but it stemmed from a strong sense of responsibility to a larger group and a view of leadership as accepting responsibility for her team and their problems. I doubt anyone ever turned around to appreciate the leadership on display, but this individual persisted in benefiting their team and the working environment.

In Leaders Eat Last, Simon Sinek emphasises the importance of leadership as a responsibility. Simon observes in his book that the most effective organisations and individuals create a sense of safety for others. They accomplish this by accepting responsibility for the individuals in their organisation, acting with empathy, and serving those with whom they collaborate. As a result, these individuals become leaders by putting the group first and accepting responsibility for resolving the group's challenges.


What does this tells us about leadership and how we develop leadership skills?


The first step is to accept responsibility. Some people are more naturally suited to certain leadership skills (communication, planning, visioning, and so on) than others. However, these abilities are not what distinguishes a leader. Leadership is impossible without the willingness to accept responsibility for the issue. A leader is anyone who accepts and seizes responsibility for making a difference.


You are leading if you feel responsible. The following step is to develop the ability to translate a sense of responsibility into practical leadership abilities. We can all improve our communication skills and ability to tell inspiring and guiding stories. Don't be afraid to take on responsibility first; practice will help you improve. The act of responsibility is the most important, and people will follow.


Leadership abilities are numerous and diverse. We must abandon the notion that effective leadership requires someone to stand in front of a crowd and motivate others. Leadership can be demonstrated through quiet acts of compassion, building coalitions for change, and remaining committed to our values. Leadership does not have to be highly visible and external. Leadership can, and often should, be quiet and behind the scenes, facilitating positive change.


It's worth recalling the words J.K. Rowlings expresses through the person of Albus Dumbledor - "It is a curious thing, Harry, but perhaps those who are best suited to power are those who have never sought it. Those who, like you, have leadership thrust upon them and take up the mantle because they must, and find to their surprise that they wear it well."


In short, leadership is not something you seek; instead, it is something you demonstrate when you take responsibility for something - big or small. It's time we started recognising the ordinary leaders around us, acting in service of their colleagues, communities and families.


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