Seeing Differently: Redefining Leadership

If your actions inspire others to dream more, learn more, do more and become more, you are a leader.

~John Quincy Adams

What has become of leadership?  This word seems to get tossed around like the word “great” to the point that it has lost its essence.  The quote above from John Quincy Adams defines the essence of leadership.  Elegant in its simplicity, the language Adams uses gets to the heart of what it means to be a leader.

Believership author and HumansFirst Club Founder, Mike Vacanti, invites us into a different perception about leadership, one not linked to authority and adherence to it.

Separate authority from those you would follow. Are they the same people?

~Mike Vacanti

Again, elegant in its simplicity.  A leader is someone you would choose to follow.  Inherent in this perspective is the notion that you do not determine whether you are a leader or not, those who choose to follow you do.  Your title or authority may put you in a position to be a leader.  Whether you are a leader brings us back to John Quincy Adams’ quote on how you show up to create better with and for others from that position.

Yet, we have become so conditioned to be management-focused that we too often view leadership through the tried and clung-to lens of management language, behaviors and metrics. For many, determined to remain rooted in the ideologies of the Industrial Age and the command and control leadership style so often representative of it, leadership and management have become dehumanizingly synonymous.

Here is my invitation to you: stop using language that reinforces the outdated and erroneous notion that people are to be managed. Support this by living values and practices that support the development and success of leaders who expand human capacity, invite and engage different perspectives and inspire people to create better with and for others.

We manage budgets. We manage calendars. We manage projects. We lead people. Beyond simply leading people, leadership is about leading people to create positive outcomes together.

To those of you who may see yourself as a “people manager”, what if you reframed this to “I am a people leader”?  You may manage the employee roster or human capacity needs for your organization. You might be in charge of a functional team of people responsible for delivering business support or solutions for your clients. Your role may be to manage projects and the associated work assignments and delivery for your team. These are tasks you manage.  To create value and successfully deliver the project, you lead people to be and bring their best contributions so you can create better together.

A leader’s role is to create the conditions that enable growth and success, such as:

  • psychological safety
  • proactive, transparent communication
  • setting clear expectations
  • defining clear roles and responsibilities
  • being the calm navigator through the challenges and uncertainties that might arise
  • inviting the perspectives of others to interdependently co-create solutions that best serve your clients’ needs

Leadership requires you to be in the fray with your team, interdependently working to solve problems and deliver value. Leadership requires that you lead from the front during difficult times, you celebrate and recognize your people and their contributions to success, and you model what you seek to inspire and see from others to create an interdependent, creative, innovative team that aspires to be and create better together.

Leadership at its core is human, requiring genuine connection, vulnerability, courage, humility, and emotional intelligence. Leadership is the epitome of caring.  It is rooted in love, compassion, humility, and belief. Strong leadership does not happen without these essential human elements that create connection with one another, inspire and unite people behind a shared vision and purpose, and unleash human greatness to expand human capacity, ignite greater contributions and multiply impact.

Leadership is the nexus of heightened presence, self-awareness, intentional other and situational awareness, emotional intelligence, relationship-building, and influence.

Questions you might often hear from a strong leader include:

  • What do you see?
  • How might we?
  • What else should we be considering?
  • What are we missing here?
  • How would you approach this challenge?
  • Who else should we invite into this conversation?
  • What other perspectives would be valuable to our decision-making process?

When we are experiencing strong leadership, there is an energy of “we” and “us” that is consistent, strong, yet vulnerable.  It is compassionate, welcoming and inspiring. It brings forth the unique brilliance of each team member and the collective to expand human capacity, creativity, innovation and purposeful action to create better solutions and outcomes, together.

The time is now to overwrite the outdated, dictatorial, self-serving and suppressive management paradigms espoused as leadership with truly human leadership that meets the demands of 2020 and beyond. The practice of, obedience to, and myopic focus on the short-term, on 90-day cycles of earnings reporting, is a pattern that needs to be broken.  Slavishly being beholden to delivering shareholder value, to extracting results from people no matter the mental health, physical health or other human tolls this takes, is no longer desirable nor sustainable to meet twenty-first-century global business and societal demands.

We can do better. We must do better if we are to create a world where the planet, businesses, communities, and families thrive. The world needs more willing, caring, strong servant leaders than ever before. Leaders, as Adams says, whose actions inspire others to dream more, learn more, do more and become more. Will you be one of them?


Brian Kelly
Brian Kelly
Brian Kelly is a visionary connector, community-builder and human development specialist who helps people and teams unleash their human greatness so they can create better together. Brian believes in each person’s unique human greatness and the power of harnessing this to amplify impact for teams, communities, and organizations. Brian is an ICF Accredited Coach whose three-decade career spans business, technology, finance, and human development. He is co-author of the book Becoming You to be released later this year. Brian’s encouraging energy and relational and strategic approach invite the inclusive business leaders and teams he works with to expand their perspective to strengthen their belief and their ability to create better together. Brian works with clients to understand the conditions that create greater contributions, fulfillment, and success and then works with them, using proven frameworks, to help them create those conditions through the lens of their strengths. The results are greater self-awareness, confidence, connection, teamwork, creativity and innovation producing better human and business results. Brian is the host of the We Can Do Better Conversations series, which invite inclusive conversations on topics relevant to bringing greater humanity to our workplaces, communities, families, and relationships. Brian serves on the Executive Board for Overcoming Odds where he helped the Executive Director with board development, strategic business planning and expanding the reach and impact of the nonprofit’s mission. Brian has also served on the Washington DC metro area chapter Board for several culturally-based National nonprofits focused on professional and leadership development.

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  1. Brian – You encapsulated so much wisdom here, I don’t know where to start.

    I really appreciated your distinction around managing things and leading people. And this: “you do not determine whether you are a leader or not, those who choose to follow you do.” So true! Kimberly Davis talks about this in relationship to authenticity in her book Brave Leadership.

    The way you articulate leadership makes me wonder why we’re even talking about it. Why is it that some “leaders” just don’t get it? Or…refuse to get it.

    Brilliant piece of writing.

    • Thank you, Jeff! I appreciate your work and your sharing your insights on this article. Kimberly’s Brave Leadership book is wonderful!

  2. Great article Brian! There has never been a more challenging time for leadership.
    It’s amazing how many leaders there are..we are all leaders.. we have to lead ourselves first and show up…We all have a contribution…we all have a light to shine. The fact that change is constant allows us to switch on when others are dim.
    “Me” becomes “We” and that’s humanity…to help one another. A leader allows the floor to open so gravity doesn’t keep others down. Thanks for this read. I’m right there with you 🙏🙏🙏

    • Thank you, Paula! Your point on leading ourselves first is so vitally important to creating the meaningful life you want.

  3. Bravo Brian! I could not agree more! The line, “you do not determine whether you are a leader or not, those who choose to follow you do” reminds me of a line in one John C Maxwell’s books, “The leader that has no followers is just a person out taking a walk.”
    This new world that is emerging from the ashes of COVID 19 is going to challenge all leaders due to the economic stress it has caused. I hope that those whose businesses are struggling will seek help and turn to leadership educators. Ultimately they must realize that the only way out and back to having a secure and thriving business is to harness the wisdom, perspective, and experience of every team member. When you build up your people, they are empowered to build up others because of your example. Leaders need to figure out that they do NOT need to feel compelled to always be the smartest person in the room! I completely agree that the solution is Servant Leadership. It is the key to future success, it always has been the mark of a great leader, but it has been the exception, not the rule. Great read, Brian! Thank you!

    • Thank you, Catherine! Together we will bring and develop greater servant leadership to create better for and with one another!

  4. Brian what a masterpiece my friend! 👏💙👏

    I was reading this killer paragraph with a smile and teared eyes:

    “Slavishly being beholden to delivering shareholder value, to extracting results from people no matter the mental health, physical health or other human tolls this takes, is no longer desirable nor sustainable to meet twenty-first-century global business and societal demands.”

    I would even say the servant leadership mindset should be promoted and truly worked on to become the way to go for every single person within the organization starting from the recruitment process.

    I once read some test which was qualified as a “patience” one and was having my mouth open for at least 15 sec. This was the test:

    ‘Six people were invited for an interview by 7 am. The recruiter told them to wait. He showed up again by 6 PM. The two people who were still there got the job.’

    This message is violating two of the biggest universal correct principles: human dignity and respect.

    What was the hided message?

    You are reduced to “things”. You are my slaves. I am controlling your destiny and will be doing with you whatever I decide is doable; simply because you are too coward to be treated as a “whole” person and because I have the authority to do so.

    Thank you again Brian for this brilliant essay! I love it! 😍

    • Thank you, Myriam! I appreciate your sharing how the passage you cited resonated with you. I share your passion around servant leadership and creating more of this so we can create better with and for one another!

  5. Thanks, Brian.

    I was facilitating a leadership program a few years back and one of the execs popped in – a very cool fellow named Bill Taggart. He said, off the top of his head, “Two things you develop before you need them—capabilities and relationships. You manage things, lead people. People are not things. If you treat people like things, you’ll p*ss ’em off.”

    I wrote it down and asked if I could use it. He said, “Did I say that?”
    “Yeah, you did.”

    I’m working with another group in a couple of weeks, and one of the things we’re going to talk about is . . .

    “Managing is about control of others. Leading is about control of self.”

    Keep on fightin’ the good fight.


  6. Brian, your perspective is always though-provoking and compelling. I couldn’t agree more about he word leader getting thrown around like the word “Great.” I do like the word leader of peiple. WhenI think about the best humans with whom I’ve been surrounded by who have thelabel of leader, besides mentor and coach, the words that come to mind are “Curator” and “Cultivator” because they emody preparing, developing and tending to as well as knowledge and creativity.

    Thank you for always extending an invitation to a interesting perspective.

  7. The time is now for true, selfless servant leadership to emerge as a new dawn of something bigger than ourselves is before all of Humanity !! We have a huge opportunity to change and redefine leadership in many great and positive ways !! Dennis J. Pitocco Brian Kelly we have to be those people who believes in Humanity so much that we will lead not from a positional authority perspective but one of permissional leadership !! John C. Maxwell says that leadership and management are not one in the same, so why do we think that is truly the reality? I heard this saying before, “Leaders can’t lead if they can’t follow, Followers can’t follow if they can’t Lead”
    What are you thoughts?

    #IfIHelpYouYouHelpMeThenWeHelpWe #BringingHumanityTogether #VoicesOfHumanity #HeartForHumanity #Believership #HumansFirst