I’m Looking for a Word

January 18, 2016

I’m looking for a word.

I’ve been looking for it for quite a while. So long, in fact, that I worry it may not exist. But I’m not giving up yet.

The word describes the collection of qualities that make a person excellent at handling responsibilities, especially multiple competing responsibilities, and able to deal with unexpected challenges with grace and agility. It encompasses all the characteristics you would want in a person you put in charge of something important. It defines what you want to develop in yourself when you seek to become more resilient, more flexible, more capable, and more confident as you pursue important goals.

I can come up with lots of words that describe important components of this whole concept. But I can’t come up with one that describes the concept. It includes all the important qualities of a leader apart from the ability to inspire, guide, and manage other people. Everything that’s important for leadership apart from the ability to lead others.

In a leadership course, when we discussed what leadership means, one of the first responses was, “In order to be a leader you have to have followers.” My question was what do we then call people who are in charge, carrying all the responsibility, following a compelling vision, and creating something important, but who have no followers?

The solo entrepreneur is a great example. She or he is responsible for doing the work, serving the client or creating the product, and for managing the details of the business. They have multiple roles to fill, and while they might contract with someone to do one or more roles, such as a part-time virtual assistant or a marketing consultant, those people are not followers. They are other businesses or self-employed people providing a service. If “leader” implies “follower,” then leader is not the correct term for the solo entrepreneur’s role in their own business.

Another example is an artist. Whether painting, sculpting, blowing glass, composing music, writing novels, or creating any other art, the artist is in charge of the art and carries the responsibility for producing it. The artist has the vision and guides the creative process. But the artist is not the leader of the project. Successfully creating art is not leadership. What is it?

A third example is the doctoral student who has to complete a dissertation, the comprehensive write-up of their research project, in order to complete their degree. The doctoral student is in charge of and responsible for the finished project. The doctoral student has a dissertation committee of professors who will offer some guidance and ultimately be the ones who approve the final product once all requirements have been met. The doctoral student may do their research in cooperation with other students or as part of a professor’s research team, but their dissertation is their own project. They have to work with other people in some ways, but it’s an individual project in many ways.

The doctoral student isn’t the leader of their dissertation. The doctoral student doesn’t succeed because of great leadership skills. What do we call the quality the doctoral student has to develop and leverage to be successful at self-directed, complex, demanding work?

I have identified the components – at least many of them – in an effort to discover the word. Again, they’re the things you would list as important for good leadership, apart from leading other people. They’re the things that make a person great at being in charge and likely to be successful in their undertakings.

  • Ability to handle responsibility
  • Ability to juggle multiple, competing responsibilities
  • Agility, the ability to handle various circumstances
  • Flexibility, the ability to adapt to changing circumstances
  • Initiative (self-starter)
  • Self-direction
  • Internal motivation
  • Decision-making
  • Commitment
  • Diligence
  • Persistence
  • Resourcefulness
  • Intentionality
  • Versatility
  • Capability
  • Talent
  • Skill

When we see someone stepping up to suggest a path forward in a difficult situation, recommending how a group can come together to solve a problem or organize their work or form stronger bonds, we say that person is showing leadership. When we see someone capable, resolute, determined, effective, and organized in his or her own work, able to manage a complex solo project with great results, without any followers or teammates, we don’t call that leadership.

A great leader wants people to have this capacity and will help those they lead develop it. This capacity is an important one for leaders to have, a key component of leadership, but it isn’t leadership.

What is it?

It is the ability to function autonomously, meaning not requiring a lot of direction from others, in a very effective, productive way. It is the ability to be excellent at being in charge of something without needing a leader to explain how to do it.

Is it self-leadership? Not quite. A person exhibiting self-leadership can identify areas for their personal growth to develop more of this capacity. A person needs this capacity in order to be self-led, to be able to enact what they decide is important in their life. But the capacity developed is not self-leadership.

Is it self-determination? That implies will and choice, but does not speak to the development of capability and competency. Self-determination hints at ability, because free will and choice without the power to enact the choice don’t determine an outcome. But the capacity is about handling responsibility autonomously and effectively, not about determining the course of one’s own life. It is a necessary capacity for those who want to determine the course of their own lives, but one can use this capacity in service of goals that are requests from others, so it’s not self-determination.

I help my clients develop this capacity. I continue to develop it in me. I’ll keep helping others develop it and developing it in myself whether I have the word to define it or not. But I really want to find this word!

I love words. I love language. And I enjoy sketching out word clouds and considering the details of what is and is not contained in various words and phrases.

Up to a point.

After a while it can become frustrating and tiring. Frankly, it bugs me not to have an answer.

This has been an interesting and mostly enjoyable exploration, but I won’t be sad when it comes to an end. I’m ready to find my word.

Any suggestions on where I can look?

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