What is “Leadership”?

Founders of creative service firms and other agencies have built a platform that’s created leverage for them. They have a team. They’re leading an organization from a positional sense. However, the team doesn’t always do what they expect, and sometimes team members act in puzzling ways that contradict the direction they have set.

To gain more leverage and make more impact, their leadership has to grow. They need more leadership mastery.

Before we can measure or grow leadership mastery, we have to answer some questions;

  • What is leadership mastery?
  • What are the components of leadership?
  • How do we measure an improvement in leadership mastery?

Leadership, as I see it, has three distinct levels.


The base level of leadership is our ability to lead ourselves. There are three levels to self-leadership, self-control, knowing how others perceive you, and understanding how those perceptions impact your thoughts and feelings.


Self-control means that we’re able to choose our emotions and thoughts. We can see thought patterns or emotional reactions that are not serving us or our teams and change them. We understand the things that trigger us emotionally or stir us up and take care of those feelings without having them spill over onto the people around us.

Honestly, this first leadership test is one that I see most leaders failing.

They may have the other levels of leadership straightened out. But they’re still dealing with this level of being in control of their own emotions and choices. They may avoid uncomfortable conversations or difficult tasks. Some have mood swings that sap their productivity. Others continually find themselves driven by the things happening around them and their own history and triggers, with very little awareness of their impact on their teams and businesses.

We’ve seen leaders in the news who yell at employees or fire people on a whim. Who can’t take bad news, so their teams lie to them.

Lots of organizations have “managing the boss” built into their culture. Do folks avoid presenting you with bad news? How do they “shape the narrative” before it comes to you? These activities are necessary because you are not responsible for your emotions and thoughts. This is not leadership mastery!

All this energy to manage your mood or emotions is sapping your company’s energy and hindering your ability to move forward.

How do others perceive you?

The second thing in self-leadership is knowing how others perceive you.

I often ask leaders, “What is the mood like in the room after you leave? Or what impact does your arrival in a room have on the mood in the room?” Are people excited to see you, or are they energized? Are they bracing for action or feeling small? Are they trying not to get in trouble? Your presence can impact a room in many different ways, but you need to be aware of what’s happening there and be able to use that to influence other people.

How do those perceptions impact your thoughts and feelings?

The third part of self-leadership is knowing how the way others perceive you impacts your feelings and choices.

So, we talked at first about how you need to control your emotions and choices, and one of the things that can lead us to be out of control of our emotions and choices is how other people perceive us. Some people need to be liked, and other people’s perceptions of them can often influence their ability to make the right choice because it will be more difficult for them if the right choice is unpopular. How often do you say, “I don’t want people to think I’m fill in the blank.”

So, to lead ourselves, we need to control our emotions and choices. We need to know how others perceive us and see how others’ perception of us impacts our feelings and choices.

That’s the self-leadership, the foundation, the bottom layer of leadership.

Once we know how to lead ourselves, we can better lead others.

Leadership starts first in one-to-one relationships.

There are two components to how we lead others. The first component is that to lead someone, we need to be committed to their best. I know some leaders think about their team as tools or cogs in the wheel. They’re thinking, “What can I get out of this person that will help the enterprise?” And that’s realistic. We’re paying people’s salaries and want to get something out of them.

But unless we are committed to their best, to them growing, overcoming their shortcomings, and reaching their goals and dreams, they will see our relationship as transactional and exploitative. They may bring only the minimum required to fulfill that transactional requirement. On the other hand, when we’re committed to our team members best, to helping them overcome all their challenges and obstacles. To go further, we’re committed to understanding and hearing their dreams and aspirations and helping them achieve them. Even if achieving those dreams means that they take an opportunity outside our organization.

When we do that, we commit ourselves to them being their best and achieving their dreams. That’s when I see team members bringing their whole selves to work and going above and beyond. That starts a relationship based on trust instead of a transaction. And as a leader, that trust is super important. You’re going to ask them to go to places they don’t want to go and try things they don’t want to try, and that trust is the currency you have to get them to do those things.

Additionally, to lead others, we have to make sure that we are putting those team members in an opportunity to succeed. We can give team members responsibility for an outcome they might not have the tools, resources, or knowledge to accomplish. I see that as leadership failure. If we’re asking people to do something, we need to ensure they have what they need to succeed.

They also need an environment in which they’re going to succeed. Is there a level of trust amongst our coworkers? Are there clear boundaries and delineations between the different roles? Do we have values, rules, or a culture that establishes how we will work together? Finally, for someone to be in a position to succeed, they need a way to be able to measure their success. They don’t need you to measure their success. They need to have feedback regularly, daily if possible. That helps them to see that the work that they’re doing is making a difference in getting to the goal that you’ve asked them to reach.

So again, to lead others, we need to be committed to their best and put them in a position to succeed.

Leading the Team

Finally, leadership involves leading the team. So, where leading others was one-to-one, I am leading one other person; as the CEO or founder, you are responsible for leading the whole organization in the right direction, and this type of leadership leads the enterprise.

Organizational leadership is a completely different skill set from leading individuals. This is where strategy starts to come into play. You start to spend more time and energy focused outside the organization, looking at what’s happening in the marketplace. What’s changing for our customers? How can we win in the environment that is emerging?

So, if we’re well-positioned in our marketplace, hopefully, we will find a core constituency, an ideal client to whom we’re selling our services. As the marketplace changes and that client’s needs change, we need to change how we’re offering or even what we offer to clients to meet those needs. If we’re too late and scrambling, we’ll lose momentum in the marketplace. So, organizational leaders must have a point of view about the future. In the words of Wayne Gretzky, “We must skate to where the puck is going, not to where the puck is now.”

When we have that vision of the future, we might need different tools, talent, or money to be well-positioned to skate to where the puck is going. As part of that vision, the leader needs to think about how we put our team in a position to succeed. How are we going to make sure that we have the investment money, talent, and tools that are going to be necessary to meet the needs of the marketplace?

Finally, successful enterprise leaders have to say no. You’re allocating talent, money, and opportunity across the organization and each constituency within your organization. Departments and leaders will come to you with good ideas, and things that would make their part of the organization better, but we can’t do everything. Your job as the organization leader is to say no a lot. To find a way to allocate the organization’s resources, time, attention, and money across those various opportunities in the best way possible.

Leaders create leaders

Leaders also create new leaders. You’re always looking for emerging talent and helping to develop it to generate the leaders you will need as your organization grows.

The road ahead

Leading yourself is the first thing. And that is a task that is never done and that we constantly have to work on. How do we stay in control of our emotions and choices? How do we become aware of how others perceive us and how their perception of us affects us?

Then, we need to be committed to our team and to their best. That means finding the training and developmental assignments they need to succeed and grow, whether within or outside the organization.

And then we need to put them in a position to succeed. So they need the systems tools and environment to complete those things.

Finally, as a leader of the enterprise, we need to look outside the organization. Figuring out our place in the changing marketplace and assembling the talent and tools necessary to succeed there. And all along the way, we need to be allocating resources. Both attention, money, and talent, in the most efficient way possible to move us toward that future.

Take our Business
Growth assessment

Learn what stage growth your buisiness is in and get specific recommendations for how to move forward.