When you see a company’s primary leader being ousted due to some company failure or scandal such as the Wells Fargo fake account debacle, it’s easy to think to yourself, “Whew! I’m glad I’m not a leader!” Upon reflection, however, that’s a bit of a cop-out, isn’t it? If there’s one thing I’ve learned about leadership from many years of studying the topic, it’s that companies and organizations need all its employees to exhibit leadership. You’re not off the hook because what any business needs is what I call leadership everywhere.

Where people tend to get confused about leadership is when they think about titles and positions.

What Leadership Really Means

Where people tend to get confused about leadership is when they think about titles and positions. “Positional” leadership or formal authority is what most people are thinking of when it comes to a company’s c-suite executives. Their titles and placement at or near the top of a hierarchical organizational chart mean they are leaders. But let me ask you this: As you “descend” down through the org chart, at what point do you stop saying any given title or role is a leader?

The fact that we draw distinctions between leaders and managers doesn’t help, either. When trying to maintain this distinction, people will say something like the old adage that leaders about doing the right thing while managers are about doing things right. But the distinction doesn’t really help, does it? After all, don’t you want all your managers to also be good leaders? And don’t you want your leaders to have excellent management skills? Of course you do!

What do we really mean when we’re talking about leadership? How can it be defined? There are all kinds of convoluted definitions floating around out there, mostly in academic circles. But having read and picked apart many different definitions of leadership, the one that has stuck with me as the very best of them all comes from the late leadership scholar Richard A. Couto: “Leadership is taking initiative on behalf of shared values and for the benefit of others” (source). I loved this definition from the moment I first heard it more than a decade ago. It is simple, easy for nearly anyone to understand, and works especially well in any business or organization that has taken the time to formally state its vision and values.

Leadership Everywhere is About Taking Initiative

Anyone who has put their best foot forward in a job search or interview has talked about how they show initiative. Taking initiative is language we all understand, and it’s a highly desirable trait in the workforce of any organization or company. But simply taking initiative in and of itself doesn’t necessarily qualify as leadership.

One of the biggest questions related to leadership that tends to go unanswered is this: Leadership for what? I’d say that nine times out of ten, the answer to that question can be summed up in one word: change. Everyone knows that the pace of change companies have to deal with has continued to increase to dizzying speeds in recent decades. But there can also be rare times when leadership really is about not changing, surprising as that may sound. The point, however, is that what vaults taking initiative into the realm of leadership is when it is done on behalf of shared values. And what company today hasn’t spelled out its core values? Well, okay, maybe quite a few. But many have, which means leadership should be even clearer to people in that company. People know what it means to take initiative, and most know (or should know) about the shared values of their company. This means leadership is easily accessible to anyone at any level in an organization. This is why I talk about leadership everywhere.

Leadership is Always on Behalf of Others

The other critical component of Couto’s definition of leadership is how it is engaged for the benefit of others. For many people, this puts an automatic positive spin on leadership, a flavor of altruism if you will. But that doesn’t have to be the case.

Part of the problem with previous approaches to defining leadership is the tendency to load the concept up with all kinds of values, whether explicit or not. Another thing I like about Couto’s definition is how it is value-free. Anyone taking initiative on behalf of shared values for the benefit of others is leadership – even if it’s bad leadership.

If you want to then talk about and judge the quality of leadership displayed by a given leader, then you can start asking questions about what those values are, because they could be less than benign values. And you can also evaluate for the benefit of which others – just a few people? Only people of a certain race or ethnicity? Couto’s definition of leadership is the best I’ve seen out there because it is not only intuitively understandable to most people, but is also applicable to all kinds of leadership, whether good or bad, and open to everyone, everywhere.

Leadership by Everyone, for Everyone

Every time an employee puts their best foot forward to pitch and help their company fulfill its vision and values, whether it’s in big ways or small ways, is being a leader. Sometimes this leadership can be instances of bringing attention to areas where the company is falling short of its own stated values – a value “gap” that needs to be addressed. It could even be a whistleblowing situation to reveal how the company is harming its own customers, and those customers would be the “others” for the benefit of whom the whistleblower is taking initiative.

Any given employee’s domain in a company may feel small and restricted, and yet by Couto’s definition of leadership, there are still all sorts of things that employee can do to be leader. Any improvements identified and implemented that facilitate the living out of company values is leadership. This is how companies can benefit from leadership everywhere, by everyone, for everyone.

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