The Counterintuitive Definition of Leadership That Shifted My View of How to Lead

by | May 12, 2021


Articles and books about leadership tend to focus on what qualities make a manager an effective leader. Characteristics such as having strong ethics, being forward-looking, dependable and a good communicator, clearly defining goals and objectives, investing in employees, and being versatile are commonly listed as top leadership skills. Research supports that these are traits that effective leaders possess. But, there’s another perspective that I’ve found more valuable than focusing on leaders and instead focuses on those being led.

A few years ago I read the book Nine Lies About Work: A Freethinking Leader’s Guide to the Real World in which the authors inverted the definition of leadership and crystalized for me how to act to be a more effective leader. Here’s that definition:

“A leader is someone who has followers, plain and simple. The only determinant of whether anyone is leading is whether anyone else is following.”

This description of leadership is extraordinary; by focusing on the followers it quickly and simply summarizes what it means to be a great leader.

Since reading this counterintuitive definition of what a leader is, I now periodically ask myself “what sort of things must I do in order for people to want to follow me?” Here are the three main things that I’ve concluded I should do to be an effective leader:

1. It’s not about me. A leader focuses on others. It’s important to realize it’s not about you — it’s about them. This is hard. We each view life from our own personal center of the universe. I believe shifting to focusing on others and investing in them and their careers is the key leadership trait that results in your people wanting to follow you. Ask yourself “How can I help my co-workers be better at their jobs, happier, and more fulfilled?”

2. Create a fun culture. Life is short and many of us spend more time at work than we do with our families and friends. Who wants to work in a culture that is no fun? Creating a fun and interesting work culture is important and is one of the greatest gifts a leader can provide to his fellow employees.

3. Adopt a coach mindset. Years ago, my daughter’s school offered a program called “Parenting with Love and Logic.” In the class, the teacher discussed the three parenting styles: (1) the drill sergeant, (2) the helicopter parent, and (3) the coach. What research shows is that the coaching style of parenting was by far the most effective. I think that is also true for leaders: they should coach (think Ted Lasso). Taking the analogy a step further, I think that being a “player-coach” or team captain is the most effective view of what sort of leader has followers. This makes me think of Ryan O’Reilly, the captain of the St. Louis Blues. Time and time again this season I’ve seen O’Reilly give the extra effort that sparks the team — the big hit on an opposing player, physically grinding out the puck in the corner, skating the length of the ice for a key backcheck. That’s the sort of leader I strive to be.

In addition to Nine Lies About Work, here are some other books on leadership that I’ve found particularly insightful:

22 Talk SHIFTs: Tools to Transform Leadership in Business, in Partnership, and in Life, by Krister Ungerböck. I just read this book in the past week and I think it’s dynamite. “Talk Shifts” are communication tools to change the words we use with each other in order to improve our relationships. From the book: “You can change your relationships—by yourself—without talking about your relationship…simply by changing your words. When you change the words you say to others, you’ll change the words they say back to you.”

The Five Dysfunctions of a Team: A Leadership Fable, by Patrick Lencioni. This book is written as a story and describes the five things that keep a team from being effective. Avoiding these five pitfalls is the secret to creating and leading high-performing teams. I consider this a “must read” for anyone who would like to be a better leader.

It’s Your Ship: Management Techniques from the Best Damn Ship in the Navy, by Michael Abrashoff. This book describes how the author became the commander of a ship which was low performing and had a dysfunctional culture and turned into the highest performing ship in the Navy. The lessons he learned in changing his ship’s culture are ones that are applicable for business leaders.

The Hard Thing About Hard Things: Building a Business When There Are No Easy Answers, by Ben Horowitz. This book is by the co-founder of Andreesen Horowitz, one of the top venture capital firms in the world. Prior to being a venture capitalist, Horowitz was the CEO of a few start-ups. In this book he focuses on how to lead when problems arise and things don’t go well. Being a leader means making tough decisions and this book provides insight about how to think about and execute those hard decisions.


  1. I second the Jocko recommendation for Extreme ownership & Dichotomy of Leadership. I’m hoping as I have freed up time in my life I will be able take more of the coach style to parenting vs. Drill Sergeant. Add your books to my growing list. Another thought provoking article, thanks!

  2. Great post. So true. When I started working and supervising — many years ago — some of this thinking was sensed by thoughtful leaders, but there was no narrative to foster and nurture it.

  3. Looking forward to reading some of these books. Have you read “Extreme Ownership” by Jocko Willink and Leif Babin? That one really registered with me and my business.

    • Thanks for the book recommendation. An investment manager we use sent me a copy and it is sitting on my shelf. I’ll move it up the queue. thanks!

  4. Love the Blues reference. Just don’t start thinking they’re getting past the Wild in June!

    Another great leadership book that changed some things for me as Jocko Willink’s Extreme Ownership.

  5. This is really helpful and so, so true. What I especially like about it is how “simple” it is. It is also easy to measure, which is rare. Thanks for sharing the concept and the other great reads in this over-crowded space. Luv2Nap


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