Can you be a leader if you “officially” have nobody to lead?

That’s a question that’s come up quite a few times recently. For example, I’m a solopreneur. While I have a number of adjacent businesses and contractors I work with to execute various areas of my business, I don’t have a team that directly reports to me. So naturally, there are times some may question whether or not I’m a leader. Who, exactly, am I leading?

This comes down to the fact that leadership is often associated with managing a team, leading a group of individuals towards a common goal. But in reality, that’s just one aspect of leadership. When you look at the definition of leadership, it’s about inspiring and influencing others to drive results, whether or not they report to you.

Leadership is an action, a behavior, a mindset.

I once worked with a company in which one person, who was highly respected and highly credible, had a voice at the table and was able to change the way that company thought about their people. Despite not leading a team, this person advocated for more flexibility, more protected time off, and had a direct impact on the way senior leadership thought about remote work. This one employee was able to convince the senior team to add remote offices which shortened the commute for many employees.

This was a powerful result and an example of strong leadership. This person used their relationships with key senior staff and their high credibility to effect positive change. On top of the policy changes, they likely reduced turnover of top talent and improved the corporate culture. Meanwhile, I bet those benefits directly impacted the company’s financial results.

But despite this, the corporate world sets a very singular definition of leadership. It’s often synonymous with management. As you progress through your career, you typically add to your team. You may start with one direct report, which increases to a handful, to maybe dozens and eventually, for those who get to the top role, you  may end up with hundreds or thousands of team members who directly or indirectly report to you.

But leadership extends far beyond this.

We see leadership in our communities, advocating for social change, addressing social issues and inequalities, and pushing for community development. Though these leaders may not have a team of direct reports, they’re inspiring and mobilizing others, bringing people together to drive positive impact.

We also have thought leaders, like the employee I mentioned. Those who don’t necessarily lead a team, but their ideas and expertise transform industries and influence others. Through their commitment to their work and their public speaking or communication (be it a blog, a newsletter or even posting on LinkedIn), these leaders can help shape the way people think and act. If done well, these leaders can help challenge the status quo and drive innovation, resulting in significant change and progress.

It’s for these reasons that I believe leadership is based on a person’s qualities versus whether or not they’re a “people manager.”

Here are some qualities that I believe make a leader:

I find vision so critical to leadership, as it’s one of the key skills needed to establish a purpose and a sense of direction. It’s this vision that helps motivate others to work towards a common goal. A leader with a vision (but without a team) can still rally support for that vision and inspire others to take action.

Leadership is typically built on trust and trust is gained through operating with integrity. Whether managing a team or not, I’ve found that the best leaders are honest, transparent and accountable. (You can hear all about these qualities in the Best Boss Ever podcast!)

When I think back on some of the greatest leaders I’ve had the pleasure of knowing, they definitely all have this one quality in common. Effective communication is critical when it comes to conveying ideas, motivating others and fostering an environment conducive to collaboration.

Emotional Intelligence
And lastly, but possibly most importantly, we have emotional intelligence. In my experience, having empathy is a fundamental trait of leadership. Understanding others’ emotions and needs, allows leaders to build stronger relationships, be better at resolving conflicts, and improves the ability to inspire trust.

What else would you add to the leadership list? Join me on LinkedIn and let’s talk about it.

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