Leadership in Local Government, Part 1: What Is Leadership? What Makes an Effective Leader?

Part 1 of our new series on leadership

By Ed Everett, ICMA-CM | Jan 1, 2021 | ARTICLE

Effective leaders are the lifeblood of an organization, regardless of their position. Poor leaders kill organizations, especially when they are in top positions. Our profession needs effective leaders, now more than ever.

What Is Leadership?

Leadership is the art of influencing and encouraging others to help move an organization, community, or nation to a better place. The “better place” can be defined in terms of economics, environment, equality, or any set of values or principles. Leaders can never lead by themselves; rather, they must convince others to help them achieve their goals.

Leadership is derived from two different forms, both of which can be used successfully.

1. Vertical Leadership: Vertical leadership is influence that is based on organizational hierarchy, power, control, or titles where one’s leadership is enhanced by the authoritative power of the organization. A title designates a “boss”; however, a title does not necessarily make a boss a leader.

2. Horizontal Leadership: Horizontal influence is based on empowerment, collaboration, vision, and/or purpose and values. It is all about the ability of a person to influence and persuade others rather than using position power and authority to gain compliance. This type of leader does not need a title to be a leader.

These two forms of leadership are not mutually exclusive. Great leaders, even if they have organizational power and authority, rely extensively on the use of the horizontal attributes of leadership.

Who Is a Leader?

Anyone who wants to be a leader can be a leader, regardless of position or title. People wanting to be a leader or improve their leadership skills should recognize that:

• The boss is not always a leader.

• Titles do not make leaders.

• Authority does not necessarily convey leadership.

• Leaders do not need a title.

• It is easier for a leader to have a title and organizational power, but it is not essential.

Below is a list of exceptional historical leaders without formal power:

• Cesar Chavez successfully organized the farm workers in California without any organizational power.

• Mahatma Gandhi was able to lead India to freedom from British rule without a title.

• Martin Luther King Jr. led a national civil rights movement with the title of pastor and president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference.

Contemporary leaders without formal power include the following:

• Greta Thunberg, a teenager from Sweden, was able to bring the world’s attention back to climate change.

• Malala Yousafzai, a young girl from Afghanistan, was able to direct the world’s attention to the power of education for girls.

• Students from Parkland High School brought national attention to gun violence in schools.

• The Black Lives Matter movement is being led by many individuals without titles or organizational power.

The two common threads for all of these leaders are (1) a deep passion for an issue or a cause, and (2) the courage to act on their passion.

Leaders with position power must be careful not to overuse or abuse that power. Effective leaders rely much more on the attributes of horizontal leadership than vertical leadership. The only exception would be in times of crises or disasters.

Most people don’t know they can be a leader until they try. Anyone can be a leader, even if it feels impossible or overwhelming. If you attempt to lead from a lower level in your organization, then you might have less influence initially. However, leaders usually rise within an organization (except in toxic organizations) and become more powerful and influential. Most leaders start small and build their leadership.

Do you want to be a leader? Leadership is a personal journey and not a prescribed course. Find your passion and act courageously!

Leadership Myths

Many people assume they cannot be a leader because of the great number of leadership myths that discourage them. Myths are commonly held beliefs that go unchallenged and become accepted truths. These unchallenged beliefs have a powerful force on our thinking and actions.

Below is a short list of false and inaccurate beliefs about leadership that cause many people to fail to explore their leadership potential.

• Leaders are the smartest, most creative, or most powerful people in the room.

• Leaders are born not made.

• Leaders don’t make mistakes or fail.

• Leaders know the answers to most problems.

• Leaders don’t have weaknesses or fears.

• Leaders have the most education.

• Leaders are always outgoing and extroverted.

• All bosses are leaders.

Leadership is an art, not a science. When I train leadership, I ask participants to identify the five most important attributes of a leader. After everyone has shared their list, we end up with approximately 15 or 20 attributes. Below is my list of the top five leadership traits in no particular order.

1. Passionate.

2. Courageous.

3. Confident.

4. Caring/Trusting.

5. Value-driven.

Please note that none of these traits are technical skills. Leaders are not effective because they are good at finance or planning or public works. Effective leaders understand the art of leadership.

It is equally important to explore the top five traits of a poor or ineffective leader. We have all encountered poor leaders and vividly remember their negative traits. Below is my list of the worst traits of an ineffective or toxic leader.

1. Micromanager.

2. Risk-averse.

3. Fearful.

4. Authoritarian.

5. Lack of confidence.

Exercise

As your first exercise, identify your top five traits of a successful leader and your top five traits of a poor leader. The identification of these traits will help you focus your leadership development.

Summary

A keen understanding of leadership and leaders is essential for all new and developing leaders. This understanding provides a foundation for the next articles that will challenge you to think differently about leadership.

Coming next month: “Leaders Know Themselves.” Great leaders have a keen understanding of both their strengths and weaknesses.

 ED EVERETT, ICMA-CM, is a consultant and former city manager, Redwood City, California, and a recipient of ICMA’s award for career excellence in 2007 (everetted@comcast.net).

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