The purpose of leadership in 2 sentences

Why being a leader vs. why we need Leadership?

I often hear the same story from leaders: When promoted into their first leadership position, several big questions arise, and a famous one is:

What is the purpose of leadership – when is leadership done well?

The same question came to me when I first got promoted into my first leadership role 15+ years back, and when discussing the topic today, I often need to clarify the exact meaning, as people tend to see 2 different angles to the purpose of leadership:

  1. Your personal motivation for being a leader
  2. The overall purpose of leading - or why we need leadership


My intention of discussing the topic is to bring clarity to #2:

The 2 purposes of Leadership: When leadership is done well

You have probably already experienced different managers, some with whom you felt well, and others where you felt they had room for improvement. These are all great sources of inspiration whether it was for a good or a less good cause – they are things to learn from.

When getting close to this, many people have stories about when a former manager did something which they themselves would never do. ‘I don’t want to be like that’ – which is a great learning, helping shape your personal leadership style.

In my further research for different views to the purpose of leadership, overlapping definitions occur, and some say:

• Deliver results through others (Right, that is what leaders do)
• Develop more leaders (OK, that is for sure part of being a senior leader)
• Make the vision come to fruition (Yep, no results without a clear direction)
• …establish purpose, the direction or strategy he stands for, the reason why others should follow him (OK, to me that is sort of justifying your own existence)

None of these appears to be wrong, yet condensing it down to the fundamental, short and strict essence, there are ultimately 2 important purposes of leading:

Achieve results

Develop people to take on tomorrow


This is not about what a leader is physically DOING, it is rather that you see how a leader has been doing great over a period of time.

Purpose #1: Achieve results

It should be rather obvious that the leader is ultimately responsible for the results and achievements of his department, team, division or organization which he or she is leading. No matter your level of responsibility, that ultimate responsibility rests on your shoulders. That is per se a part of being a leader.

Yet, HOW you achieve these results of course depends on what you are doing, and this is where elements like mission, vision, strategy, projects, must-win-battles, work planning and scheduling, follow ups and performance reviews along with other direction-setting activities come into play.

And it includes the on-going performance management: Did we hit sales numbers this week, did we handle all orders, did we produce / deliver / service customers, was the reporting done on expected time and quality etc.

Purpose #2: Develop People

Development today is exponential, things move fast, market and competitors develop, disruption is a buzz-word these years, and the way businesses and public services are executed changes constantly.

There is and will only be one way of dealing with this and staying ahead of that game: To develop people to make them capable of solving tomorrows problems even smarter and in a better way.

Helping people grow into their full potential is one of the biggest and most rewarding accomplishments you, as a leader, can make.

And this is NOT a question of a seminar or educational programme once or twice a year. This is just as much about how YOU - as the leader – orchestrates the team on a day-to-day basis, e.g.:

• Involves in problem solving
• Challenges for better / more / smarter
• Delegates responsibility
• Coaches and provides feedback
• Stimulates an assertive culture of continuous learning (eliminate any blaming!)

Only by continuously developing your people, they can take on smarter or better ways of doing things, and they can ultimately replace you with ease, leaving you to focus on bigger issues, more development or bigger assignments.

What if leadership was not there?

Reversing a question can sometimes provide more insight: What would happen if leaders were not there? Would you see results? And would people grow?

Without leadership, short term results would probably continue to come in, which is a sign that the previous leader did a good job.

But over time, further direction setting and orchestrated development is needed to reach a common understanding of direction.

Without a leader, this might come gradually through team cooperation – and you would in any case see an informal leader taking ‘the lead’ on orchestrating a common picture of direction.

If there was no leader around, people development would gradually suffer even harder. People development needs to be derived from the overall direction of organization, and so if no common direction is available due to the lack of leadership, the evolution of competencies will gradually fade out.

Results and people development are strongly interrelated:

You do not grow results without the teams’ competencies to make it happen.
And the teams’ competencies are not growing, if no-one sets a direction for that growth.

Net net: Short term results will keep coming in, but over time results and people development will both suffer, dragging towards a negative spiral which takes much more energy to turn around than a gradual, continuous development.