Who is a Leader? One simple definition for 5 – 500-year-olds!

“Who is a leader? Everyone has a different view. Why don’t you write a post demystifying it?” Archana asks me with a twinkle in her eye. 

“Sure,” I reply. I have a hundred cliches in my back pocket. I could type out a post on this topic in the next 15 minutes.

“There’s one more thing. The definition should be understood by my 5-year-old daughter too,” she says, revealing the question’s source. And perhaps the reason for the twinkle.

“OK, Mr.Feynman – I mean Archana,” I answer.

I can’t back out now. Reputations are at stake. 

But how do you write about leadership without using “transformations” or “Paradigm-shifts”? I’d have to forgo “moving to the next level.” And unless you want to visit your mechanic, you don’t want to advise your 5-year kid to make a dent in the world. 

Life is challenging. But when the going get’s tough – we cheat! 

Getting started on the “Who is a leader” challenge!

First, I try finding the profile of an ideal leader. I could reformat it, and there would be my post, all ready to go. Twenty minutes of googling tell me otherwise. Leaders come in all sizes, shapes, and languages. They can be CEOs, monks or even CEO-Monks. There’s just no common denominator. 

Let’s move on to approach 2. Let’s look at how Leaders’ do things. That may point the way. 

I list 7 leaders’ groups I admire. We’ll use this to evolve a working definition that would please my 5-year-old reader. Hopefully, you’ll like it too, my friend (we write stuff that “scales” – sorry, couldn’t help myself!). 

These are the categories I come up with:

  1. Family
  2. Teachers
  3. Spiritual gurus
  4. Peers/ classmates
  5. Leaders at work
  6. Celebrity leaders (mainly sportsmen)
  7. Support professionals (e.g., security guards) we admire at work

Now all I need to do is look at what is shared between them, and voila – the definition should be done. If only things are that easy…

It’s all about Choice

My research shows me one indisputable fact. Leaders are experts at making choices. They make so many choices that choosing (we call it decision making once we grow up!) becomes a habit. And just like any habit, the more they exercise it, the better they become. 

Each Leader uses their own approach to make these choices. And they base their choices on just as many factors – intuition, system data, or experience. The more they practice, the better they get. This is why we like experienced pilots for tricky landings.

Most of these choices happen so naturally that we don’t realize they are a choice. Here’s a personal example. My parents decided to move back from a lucrative position abroad to stay with our Grandmother and family. It wasn’t an easy choice (as I realized much later). But it meant a lot to them, and they made it look just like their other decisions – no drama, no fuss. Over time, we learn the art of decision-making from our leaders. This art of no drama, no fuss, decisions based on values is something I cherish now.

here’s another example – a personal favorite. We had an elderly security guard at our workplace. He would paint a picture with a positive message and pin it on our board every day. When people walked into work in the morning, this would be the first thing they would notice, and it brightened their day. This gentleman had a kind word and a tendency to help everyone. When it was time for his retirement, the entire office came together and gave him a gift and a standing ovation. These activities were not his Job description; they were choices he made himself. 

Choosing not to exercise choice is a powerful tool.

At primary school, I was one of the odd kids in the classroom – I just could not memorize essays. My teacher encouraged me to write stuff in my own style. Interestingly, she didn’t point out mistakes until I had started writing freely. She realized I was building a relationship with language and allowed me the space to experiment. We see this approach practiced by leaders, including politicians – things settle down and get sorted out if we wait for a bit. This is not inaction – it is choosing not to choose – until the right moment.

And Choosing the right people

Leaders are also very good at choosing who to choose for making decisions on their behalf. We call this delegation. In the Ramayana, Ravana had the option of selecting which brother would become his strategist (yeah, that word finally!). One suggested peace while the other craved for war. Ravana chose the latter, and that sealed his fate. I wonder if this is what impacted Tony Hsieh, too – his choice of friends possibly led him astray, 

So, “who is a leader?’ is best answered as “A leader is one who is good at making choices.” 

But not every choice is good, right? 

True. So we enter the second part of the puzzle. 

Who is a leader? It’s about “Responsible” choices

Imagine you are back in elementary school, and it’s raining. But you are screaming for ice-cream. 

The teacher who decides to get you the ice-cream becomes your hero (and perhaps the school’s because it stops your bawling!). But it’s an irresponsible decision – what if you catch a cold!

The “Who is a leader” question now translates to “She who makes responsible choices.”

Breaking the law is not a responsible thing, no matter who you are. Wearing a mask is the responsible choice for today. As is stopping at the traffic signal. 

Some laws come unwritten but are still sacrosanct. 

When a cricket player nicks the ball, he can wait for the umpire to give him out – he is not obliged to walk out. And yet, many of our best players walk out. They believe it the responsible thing to do given that many young kids are watching them closely. 

Good leaders understand assigning unnecessary work on a weekend or after-office hours is irresponsible. Great work is a marathon, not a sprint.

Sharing selective marketing data that puts the buyer at a disadvantage is irresponsible.

Spiritual leaders teach us to balance our health, emotions, thoughts, and energies. Human life needs all of this – break one, and you lose. Not following the balance is irresponsible. 

Behaviors like Rudeness and anger are usually irresponsible. Choices that arise from these behaviors are generally suspect.

Religion (or if you prefer ethics) teaches us a set of universal values to live by – honesty, integrity, truth, non-violence, kindness, care for everyone, etc. And society has a particular set of laws that are required for living in today’s times. Between the two of these, responsibility is usually covered. 

Ah, the puzzle is now coming together. So a leader is one who makes responsible decisions. 

But can you make a responsible decision that only benefits one group?

Welcome to inclusiveness.

Who is a Leader? She makes responsible choices benefitting everyone.

Biases and favoritism do not come in the Leader playbook (I hope you didn’t notice how much Jargon I slipped in there!)

If you make a lot of money but damage the soil, you fail. A teacher who refuses to teach a child because she has difficulty learning fails. If you cultivate a team where only people who look like you and come from the same background are accepted, you fail!

Of course, Success for everyone does not mean helping those who should be defeated. Why? Because those guys have already failed the “responsibility” test. A thief is irresponsible and should not win!

The Leader tries to make sure everyone (except the irresponsible one!) wins. We may have different professions, speak other languages and live in different areas – but our leaders help us succeed. And when we say everyone – we mean all of Mother Nature. We have to coexist with Trees, soil, water, air, animals, and birds too. Unless we all win, everyone loses. 

And that brings us to the last point.

Leaders exercise responsible choices for everyone – all the time!

Leaders are consistent. You cannot be a good leader on Tuesdays and then take the rest of the week off. Showing up every day and exercising the best choices is what makes a leader genuinely successful.

Sukumar has a goal of improving himself and his world every single day. And you’ll find him doing just that – identifying opportunities to improve, encouraging others to do the same. His weekly newsletters elevate us. And he shows up on all many posts – to nudge the writer to keep up the good work. 

Dr.Ved, a true polymath, sends in personalized greetings on all festival days. He explains the background of these festivals and what we should do. His contribution to keeping the tradition alive comes from being consistent and showing up every time. 

Seth Godin has penned a daily post for the last twenty years. He doesn’t care who reads; he keeps writing. And that habit has helped so many people around the world. 

Our Prime Minister runs his Mann ki Baat outreach every fortnight. It must take enormous planning, and yet his consistency in showing up inspires so many. 

Consistency differentiates a leader from an also-ran.

Now that we have all the pieces of the puzzle let’s put them together. And when we do that, here’s our response to “Who is a leader?”

Leaders are those who make responsible choices benefitting everyone all the time.

Now, reading this – who would you rate as a good leader? I’ll answer that for you. You, my reader, are a great leader. This is why you choose to read on leadership and update yourself every day — my felicitations to you.

And before I forget – Archana, does this pass the test?

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  1. Awesome Essay Subra…. Description is perfect and as you said it all boils down to the Choices we make for everyone all the time….And I must say defining leadership without using jargons is no mean feat 🙂

  2. Great article Subra. Very simple in style, though you sneaked in some jargons. I suppose Archana has to make the responsible choice of explaining it to her kid 🙂

    Jokes apart, liked the way you took it one operative word at a time. Refreshing approach and lots of learning from the writing style too 🙂

  3. I liked the way you built up the concept step by step, Subra. The 5-year old in me is grinning with a spark of understanding. Thanks.

  4. Brilliant post Subra. Just loved the way you brought in the key aspects that truly defines one. What stuck most is about the need for being one everyday – Clearly….Consistency is key.

  5. Thoroughly enjoyed the write-up, Subra. Have to admit that I started racking my brains after I read the topic, for it sounded quite a challenge. But the way you have gone about deconstructing leadership has been amazing. In the process, one quality of leadership you have exemplified without stating it in words is the art of simplifying the complex such that 5-year olds can understand 🙂

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