No, Everyone Is NOT A Leader

(This could turn into a bit of a rant) There are lots of things that frustrate me about leadership development these days: recycled formulaic approaches, lack of contextual subtlety, dominance of old white men, models that reduce the complexity of leadership to a conveniently numbered list… But let me start with the frequent refrain that irks me every time; “Everyone is a leader”. Of course every human being has opportunities to influence others and we can learn to use that influence better if we want to. That’s pretty much undeniable. What I can’t stand is the implication that every bit of influence qualifies as leadership, everyone who influences anyone is a leader. Really? Doesn’t that deconstruct everything we intuitively know about leadership and strip the word of any valid meaning? Yes, leaders influence people. They distinguish themselves by influencing more people, or by influencing people more deeply than others do. Leaders are the people who have disproportionate influence. In any group of people there are some who, with no advantage of authority, are more influential than the rest. There are those who have some authority but receive response, loyalty, and effort that goes far beyond what their role requires. There are those who somehow receive more peer attention and hold more social significance than others for no obvious reason. These are the leaders. The greater the disproportionate influence, and the more contexts in which it occurs, the greater the potential of the leader to be effective. Of course this ability can be developed with intention, attention, and training. Of course it can be used for noble, neutral, or evil purposes. Of course this raw charisma can be based on social and cultural factors that are shallow or even corrupt. But when looking for leaders, developing leaders, or trying to have useful intelligent conversations about leadership we are missing the point if we disregard the obvious and apparent truth that some people are able to influence others in greater numbers or to a greater degree than others with similar qualities. Let’s help everyone to get better at using their influence; but let’s use a disproportionate amount of time, energy, and resources developing those who will have the greatest impact. And let’s do so without apology and without minimizing what a leader really is.