Leadership Revelation

Cat clearly sees its own way. Clearly.

Recently, I had a revelation. It came by happenstance. I was doing research for a piece I’m working on about the Language of Leadership (more on that in a later post).  At some point, I realized I hadn’t defined leadership. It means so many things to so many people, clearly defining was important.

Since the origins of a word give so much darn insight into its true–and/or most useful–meaning, I did some serious online foraging on the etymology of the word “leadership”.

What I learned stunned me.

Etymologically speaking, leadership means: to see one’s own way.

Whhhhhaaaaaat? The origin of the meaning of the word leadership has nothing to do with other people. Leading them, inspiring them, managing them. Nothing. Aside from the leader themself, there’s nary another person to be found in the definition.

Mind blown, right? Least mine was. I’ve been ruminating on this ever since.

The idea of leadership being about other people is, in fact, quite modern. Yet that modern definition  has taken root with great force. Leadership has become synonymous with leading others. It implies that one has followers.

This modern definition begs a question: if you can’t see your own way clearly, how can you lead others effectively?


In a word, are you lacking a leader who leads?

leadership, leading, lead, leaderless, leaderlyIf an organization doesn’t have a leader, it is leaderless.

If an organization has a leader, it…has a leader. There’s no adjective to officially refer to the state of someone or something displaying leadership.

Why is that?!

I first started wondering about this almost two years ago. And I’ve written about since.

I’m bringing it up again because language reflects our society, our values, our opinions. So what does it say that we have a word for when we don’t have a leader but not one for when we do? 

Dive deeper in this week’s podcast:

Being leaderly when leaderless

Quick follow-up to yesterday’s post on The Importance of Being Leaderly.

There is an Official Adjective that speaks to leadership in an organization: leaderless.

Yes, that’s right. We have a word to describe a lack of leadership but not one to describe a surfeit of leadership. Nope, not one to describe the idea of an organization being filled with people imbued with the confidence to–regardless of title or status–be leaderly.

We have a word that speaks directly to the terrible state of affairs of being, gulp, leaderless. But not one that speaks to the awesome state of affairs of being filled to the brim with people who–again regardless of title or status–can and will step up and lead.

On a day when the United States has been all but shut down due to a distinct lack of leadership on the part of our Capital ‘L’ Leaders, it seems fitting to look at the power of being leaderly. This power goes largely untapped and un-encouraged. Clearly, that needs to change.

The Importance of Being Leaderly

Awhile ago, I started using the term ‘leaderly’, e.g. “That was a tough situation and you handled it in a very leaderly fashion.” I make up words all the time so didn’t give much thought to this new addition to my personal lexicon. It’s a funny sounding word and therefore catchy. I noticed other people started using it. Again, I didn’t think much of it. People embraced ‘funective‘, so why not leaderly?

This week, I start teaching Strategic Marketing in Seattle University’s Master in Nonprofit Leadership program. So I’ve been thinking a lot about how marketing and language can help someone be more, um, leaderly.

Somehow, being leaderly doesn’t feel weighty enough. It lacks the gravitas we tend to append to all things having to do with leading and being in a leadership position. I mean, leaders are the the ones who “go before and with to show the way,” who “guide in direction, course, action, opinion, etc.” These people are serious. They have corner offices. Their smart phones are on over-drive. They are in a league of their own.

And therein lies the problem. We’ve elevated leadership to a level that makes us believe we can only achieve it if we can leap tall buildings in a single bound. Since only a scant number of people can do that, it’s easy to opt out.

This isn’t just a problem for one (word-obsessed) professor preparing for one class at one university.  This is language getting in our way in a seriously egregious manner. This is a fundamental issue that, I contend, is undermining our efforts, and ultimately our ability, to make the world a better place.

We may not all be Leaders, with a capital ‘L’. We may not have the right title or pay grade or a reserved parking spot. But we can all lead. We can all, in ways big and small, go before others, and with others, and guide them in direction, course, action and opinion.

There’s a difference between being a Capital ‘L’ Leader and being someone who leads. If we’re going to  make the world a better place, we need both. In spades. We need as many verbs, nouns and adjectives as possible to describe this idea of forward momentum, conviction, vision and execution.

It begs the question: how will you be leaderly today?



The Language of Leadership

leadership, leadership development, storytelling, messaging, language, communicationYesterday, I spent the afternoon with the brave and audacious participants of the University of Washington’s Nonprofit Executive Leadership Institute (NELI). As one who believe that word nerdery will change the world, I invited the group to explore the language of leadership, a.k.a. “leaderly language”. (No, leaderly is not officially a word. Roll with it.)

We spent a chunk of time looking at how to use language to create messages that create stories that inspire action from both internal and external stakeholders. No small task, for sure. Yet one made much easier with a good S.U.N. Story in hand.

If you’ve never heard of a leader’s S.U.N. story, you’re not alone. It’s an acronym I made up to make it easier to remember  Marshall Ganz’s recommendation that leaders always think of telling three stories in one:

  1. Story of Self: why you have been called
  2. Story of Us: why we have been called
  3. Story of Now: the urgent challenge on which we are called to act

See? A SUNny story.

Ganz outlined this idea in his 2008 article, “What is public narrative?”  It’s based on Hillel’s famous quote:

“If I am not for myself, who will be for me? If I am not for others, what am I? And if not now, when?”

Leaders who use language effectively have answered Hillel’s three questions and know how to calibrate their answers to the setting and their audience. The ‘us’ changes based on context and therefore the ‘self’ and ‘now’ must always be adjusted accordingly. For instance, the ‘us’ of you and a new donor is different than the ‘us’ that is you and your staff. Being able to share why you were drawn to your work and how that relates to the task–or moment–at hand creates a sense of intimacy and purpose.

A leader will have  many S.U.N. Stories in their story arsenal. The art is knowing when to use which one.

If you want to see a great S.U.N. Story in action, check out the Harmony Project’s Margaret Martin’s Social Innovation Fast Pitch. That’s a whole lot of SUNny awesomeness, right?

[Hat tip to Andy Goodman for bringing the idea three stories of one back on my radar.]