“I identify as a leader”

News coverage in the last couple weeks has had an unprecedented focus on issues of self-identification.

High profile stories of people who understand themselves to be different in gender or race from what was apparent in their childhood have raised complex questions about identity, social constructs, self-determination, and the importance of labels and language. It also has me thinking about those who choose to identity themselves as leaders.

An informal mentor of mine several years ago often used the insightful phrase: “Leadership is a gift from the people”. That’s a very helpful starting point.

In any specific organization or situation real leadership is usually a shared responsibility, often with shifting influences, and it may not directly relate to official roles or authority. It always derives from the voluntary following of others.

My working definition of leadership is something like: Intentional influence in a chosen direction.

A leader on the other hand is not always exercising leadership. To me, a Leader is any person who holds disproportionate influence. That is, leaders naturally have a greater effect on people, organizations, and situations than might normally be expected given their authority or status.

That may be recognised by being given positions and titles that capitalize on the innate ability, and it certainly needs to be developed and refined; but the quality that makes someone a leader is typically something easily recognized but hard to explain.

Many people identify themselves as leaders. It’s a common word in job applications and Linked In profiles. In fact, it has become so universal that the word has lost a great deal of meaning. I’m a little wary of anyone who quickly calls himself or herself a leader. If you have to claim it, there’s a very good chance you aren’t one. If you are one, others will say it for you and about you so there’s no need to say it.

Not that I object to the word, it’s just that I think it fits into the Show Me, Don’t Tell Me category. True leaders (as is also said of true artists, true gentlemen, and true Christians) don’t need to identify themselves with the title.  

When did you first begin to identify yourself as a leader? How do you identify someone else as one?