If you start studying leadership, you will quickly discover that there is a dazzling number of definitions of leadership in the literature. Most of the definitions describe the heart or character of a leader. They focus on the kind of person who would make a good leader. While describing the profile of a leader is good, it doesn’t help with the practicalities of leading. In my search for a better way to define leadership, I stumbled on the work of international leadership strategist Nikos Mourkogiannis. In his book, titled  “Purpose: The Starting Point of Great Companies“, he talks about the TIME framework that gives four essential actions that every leader must master.

• Think: Devise a direction or outline plan.
• Inspire: Generate collective support for this direction and the kind of action that will be required.
• Mobilize: Make sure that all the relevant individuals agree to cooperate and to accept specific roles.
• Empower: Set up the systems needed to maintain momentum.

Many leadership experts have different frameworks for leadership but this one was one of the best I’ve seen. Leaders have to be mindful that the opportunities to effect meaningful change are limited by time. As Mourkogiannis says, “leaders should always have a time frame in mind.”

Another framework I love, which also gives the same roles but in a different way is the Roger L. Martin’s Five Questions Of Strategy. The “winning aspiration” covers both the “think” and “inspire” points above. The “capabilities” and “management systems” questions correspond to the “mobilize” and “Empower” actions above.

I think leadership is doing, not being. Leadership is a verb, not a noun. I think being shapes and must precede doing. However, being isn’t doing. Having the character of a leader doesn’t make one a leader. Doing what a leader does is what makes one a leader.

I really didn’t see a focus on function in many definitions of leadership. The few I saw were vague. One of my favorite leadership experts, for example, often defines leadership as influence. To me, that is very abstract and it leaves me saying, how do I influence? Also, he says, “A leader is one who knows the way, goes the way, and shows the way.” That’s very true. A leader does those things. But that still leaves me unable to hit the ground running.

Related: What is leadership

The Job Description of a Leader

The Definition of a Leader

Because of my desire for a comprehensive functional definition of leadership, I decided to switch the focus from defining the word “leadership” to defining the word “leader”. Building on the work of Nikos Mourkogiannis, Roger Martin, and many other leadership experts, I define the word leader in terms of who a leader is, what he does, why he does it, and how he does it because that is really what matters in the end. Leadership as a subject doesn’t lead people. The discipline of leadership doesn’t change the world, leaders do.

My definition spells out the job description of a leader. I personally believe my definition paints a picture of a leader that is specific, clear, tangible, and measurable, something many of the other definitions–though great– don’t do as effectively.

“A leader is a servant who is motivated by a higher purpose to guide a team to accomplish a shared vision by Thinking out strategy, Inspiring, Mobilizing, Empowering, and Supporting the team.”

Related: What is leadership

The 5 W’s and 1 H of Leadership

To get a complete story on a subject, journalists, researchers, and police officers often use the 5W’s and 1H formula. Let’s see how my definition gets the complete story about a leader:

 Component  Description
Who is he? A leader is a servant (who). He has the Heart, Head (mind), Hands (deeds) of a servant.
Why does he serve? He is motivated by a higher purpose (why). A higher purpose is something greater than oneself; something that will outlive us. It is not money or self-centered.

Examples include God, Karma, unconditional love, country, a common good, etc. However, it must be outside of self and must be entirely for the good of the people.

What does he do? He guides a team (what he does). Leadership is about
1) Guiding those who don’t know how to get somewhere
2) Accomplishing or winning the goal/prize (which is the vision).A person who doesn’t lead the team to win is not an effective leader.
Where does he do it? Where is he going? The leader’s job is people. A leader leads people. The team is where he works. A leader is a shepherd. That’s why he must understand people. He leads the team to accomplish a shared vision (i.e. where he is going)
How does he do it? By Thinking out strategy, Inspiring, Mobilizing, Empowering, and Supporting the team.
When does he do it? A leader leads now and always. However, a competent a leader interprets the TIMES to know when to act. Leaders know that timing is everything. When to Lead Is As Important As What to Do and Where to Go. To lead well, you need to do the right things, at the right place, at the right time, with the right people, and for the right reasons.


A Leader Discerns the TIMES

A leader discerns or interprets the times. A leader is able to chart the course to success because he can interpret or discern the times. The acrostic TIMES reminds me of this necessary aspect of the leader’s job: Leaders discern the times. That’s how they get their vision and that’s how they lead the team to victory. By discerning / understanding the times, a leader can know which way the storms are coming and know how to steer the team to victory in a world where storms are bound to come.

One of my favorite passages in the OT talks about the leadership team King David assembled to take over leadership of Israel from King Saul. David brought onto his team the people of Issachar who were described as, “men who had understanding of the times, to know what Israel ought to do”. Israel here was the team that David had to lead to victory. He basically brought on board consultants/advisers that were gifted at discerning what the entire organization or team ought to do. David was very good at attracting talented and skillful people to join his team. Effective leaders know that discerning the times and taking skillful action is key to winning.

As the leader of Israel—the person in charge of providing strategic direction for the country—David needed the counsel of these people. The advice and counsel of these people would be key to his success. Wise leaders set the course for their organizations, but they don’t do it alone. They have, as advisors, people who understand the times, who know what the organization ought to do.

One other historical leader who was big on discerning the time and taking the right action was Jesus. One day, he scolded his critics, saying to them:  “When you see a cloud rising in the west, immediately you say, ‘It’s going to rain,’ and it does. And when the south wind blows, you say, ‘It’s going to be hot,’ and it is. Hypocrites! You know how to interpret the appearance of the earth and the sky. How is it that you don’t know how to interpret this present time?”

Today, we have meteorologists who do a very decent job of predicting the weather. They are experts who have studied weather and can do that fairly accurately, not perfectly. Like the critics of Jesus, I think we often limit our abilities to use cues to discern what actions to take only to the realm of weather. We understand it and do it when it comes to weather. But when it comes to other crucial areas of life, we don’t. The truth is that effective leaders know how to study their environment. Like weather experts, they are able to make good forecasts so that they and their teams can prepare for the rain and storms before they hit. Leaders who ignore this suffer when the storms hit them unaware.

Jesus is expecting the people to interpret the times and make a decision that will determine the course of their lives. Leaders have to do this effectively to lead their organizations to victory.

A Leader is a Servant

A leader is a servant. He is a steward, not an owner. The people are the owner of everything. A leader is both a servant of Truth and a servant of the people.

As a servant of Truth:

  • A leader must see things through a truth paradigm that is based on group’s accepted core beliefs and values.
  • A leader’s ears must ring with the voice of truth.

As a servant of his followers:

  • A leader must see things through the eyes of his followers.
  • The ears of the leader ring with the voices of his followers.
  • A leader puts himself in the shoes of his followers and helps make their dreams come true.
  • As such, when he comes up with a vision, it’s not his vision alone. It is a shared vision. It is the vision of his followers because he sees things through their eyes, puts himself in their shoes, and his ears ring with their voices.
  • A leader serves as the guide for the team to accomplish a shared vision.

A Leader Finds a Way for the Team to Win

John Maxwell says, “Leaders Find a Way for the Team to Win.

Randy Pennington says, “The leader’s most important – you could say only – job is to influence others to deliver positive results. Results rule! Everything else is a discussion of the best ways to do so.”

  • A leader guides / directs the team to win.
  • The Team = leader + followers. A leader is a person who has followers. If you don’t have anyone following you, you are not a leader; you are simply going on a walk.

To lead = “to go before or with to show the way.”–Dictionary.com

A leader leads people from one place to another. His job is to go before them and show them the way so that they don’t get lost and end up somewhere else. A leader hasn’t done his job if he hasn’t taken people from where they are to where they need to go. A leader has to know the way—that’s why he is the leader.

You could say, “a leader is a person who goes before or with the team to show the way to win (accomplish a shared vision) by thinking strategically, inspiring and motivating, mobilizing, empowering, and supporting them.

A leader finds a way for the team to accomplish common aspirational goals. A leader succeeds to get things done and produce results. A leader takes the team to victory. If you aren’t taking the team to victory, you are not leading.

A leader finds a way for the team to win! Leadership is about winning! A leader guides a team to the victory of accomplishing a shared vision.  It’s about victory, about conquering. It’s about finding a way for all the stakeholders to win. If there is nothing to overcome; if there are no obstacles, no difficult journey to endure to a land where the people have never been and don’t know how to go, then you don’t need a leader.

The winning is accomplishing a shared vision for a purpose that is greater than the team. And he/she leads the team to win by doing the following for the team:

  1. Thinking strategically
  2. Inspiring and motivating
  3. Mobilizing
  4. Empowering
  5. Supporting


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