What does it mean to be a leader?

James McGreggor
6 min readJan 8, 2023


The success of a leader is directly related to the success of his or her people. I would not have had the success in my life if it was not for the people that supported me. As an individual contributor this is true, but as leaders it is so much more relevant.

I would not have been able to achieve the things that I have done if it had not been for my team, and I will not be able to accomplish the goals that are planned without them either. Leaders need to not only recognize this, it should be embraced as their daily mantra and drive thier behavior.

To be a leader, there are two key points to understand.

First, being a leader is different from being a manager. While the best managers are leaders, being a manager does not make you a leader. The opposite is also true, you do not have to be a manager to be a leader, and sometimes a good manager may not be a strong leader. Also, just because you are a leader, it does not mean that you will automatically be a good manager…though surely it helps.

Second, but most important, is that being a leader is a choice; you must want to be a leader and everything that comes with it…but what does that mean?

🔹 A leader puts their team and team members first.

Don’t worry about receiving recognition, focus on building up your team members and giving them the opportunity to shine. If you want to be a leader, you need to shift the focus from trying to continue to gain recognition for your achievements to focusing on uplifting your team members. I am not suggesting that you should not be recognized for the good things that you do, but what I am saying is that you need to introduce a behavioral and emotional change. You must want this change; otherwise, you will always be split between two different modus operandi.

🔹 A leader protects their team and team members.

As a leader you need to stand behind your team. Your team members need to feel safe and know that you have their back if they fail. While your employees or team members may be responsible for the work being done, you need to hold yourself accountable. To do this, you also need to let go, you need to delegate. Not only because there is no possible way for you to do everything, if you do not show that you trust your team members, they will never feel safe. Taking it a step further, if you do not give them the opportunity to make mistakes and see that you do have their back, how will you establish this trust?

🔹 A leader invests in their people.

Don’t be afraid to invest in people because you fear that they will leave, in fact, do the opposite! There is nothing worse in your career than when you are being held back because your manager or company is afraid to lose you. Unfortunately, by doing this, as leaders you are already losing your employees. Here’s the thing, they were going to leave anyway, so you can either get the most out of the time that you have them on your team by investing in them or you can erode the employee’s effectiveness by stagnating their growth. Here is another possibility: your employees may stick around longer because you continue to invest in them and their colleagues.

🔹 A leader seeks 360° feedback.

This one is simple to understand but not always the easiest to live by, especially in our fast paced and volatile work environments. Yes, everyone knows that they should to be open to constructive criticism. It is easy to look to those who are professionally senior to you (in experience or seniority) and receive criticism. They have “been there” and “done that” so naturally their opinions carry some weight (wrong or right is a different story). It is not as easy to receive the same criticism from those who may be professionally junior to you; however, that does not mean that their ideas and opinions are less valid. While it appears to have died down over the past couple years, there has been a lot of negative discourse about the values and behaviors of various younger generations. Every generation has something positive to give. Just because our generation has done something one way, does not mean that it should continue. As a Get-X’er, I am constantly impressed by the ideas that are coming out of the younger generations. The best thing that we can do is provide the younger generations with knowledge and guidance derived from the lessons that we have learned, while listening to and genuinely considering their questions and ideas.

🔹 A leader influences the climate.

I will be honest, of all the aspects of being a leader, I still struggle with this one from time to time. As managers, we set the emotional and behavioral tone of the company. If we are stressed, our team members will be stressed. If we are happy, they are more inclined to be happy and content (though we cannot be blind and assume this either), if we are upset and speaking negatively about upper management, about other employees, or about customers/clients, or the economy, our employees will most certainly absorb this, and it will affect their own mental health. What’s worse, the negativity will spread like a cancer eroding effectiveness of the teams. It is hard, especially as the workforce and economy continues to be volatile and rapidly changing, but we simply cannot do that. In this aspect, managers must be leaders. Managers must bear the burden of always being aware of our own behavior, knowing what can be expressed and what needs to be kept to ourselves. We must consider our actions and behavior because our employees are watching and listening to us.

🔹 A leader is not always a manager.

This one, while it may seem obvious, is one that I struggled with midway within my career. I am sure that you have heard the term, “leading without authority”. For a time, I disagreed with that idea. Through my own experience and through witnessing others, my opinion grew into the idea that this was something management said to employees to create false accountability. While some circumstances it was used that way, I was wrong about the concept. The real problem is that you cannot “effectively manage without authority”. Whether it is people or projects, if you do not have the authority to influence or make decisions, you face the risk of not being able to effectively manage. To be clear, authority can also be transitive or indirect (e.g., having authority given over a project team or indirectly supported by a champion who does have authority); however, management and authority have nothing to do with leading or being a leader. As an employee or team member, you can choose to be a leader within your own team, doing all the points described above and being a champion for others. You may even find yourself in a situation where you are supporting your manager operating as a “subordinate-leader”.

While there are other aspects to being a leader (e.g., being available, communicating effectively, continuing to learn), those elaborated above are the ones that I beleive are either the most important or most often misunderstood.

Again, being a leader is a choice. You must want to be a leader and take all the joys and struggles that come with it. It will be stressful and taxing at times, but it can also be the most rewarding and decision you can make.