"The first step in wisdom is in the correct naming of things." -- Confucius

Whether you're looking to move up in the ranks of your organization, or you're considering team members for promotion, being clear on what it means to be a leader is critical. The noun "leader" simply describes what a person is, but not what that person does.

You can give the title of leader to anyone in your company, right now, but is that person someone who will turn that noun into a verb, taking action and leading?

To answer that question, first you need to understand what it means to act as a leader. When you lead, you're:

  1. Setting direction
  2. Allocating resources
  3. Inspiring action
  4. Being accountable for results

This is opposed to, say, a manager, whose job it is to ensure that systems are running efficiently. Instead, leaders are the ones enthusiastically spearheading the direction of a project, a division, or an entire company. To do this well, you should have the practice, presence and attitude necessary for the role, and the role itself should be the right fit.

1. Attitude

There are five attitude categories that team members in any organization fall into:

Mis-matches. How these folks were hired is a mystery, but they clearly do not have the right stuff to do the work. You know it. They know it. They're the walking dead. The best thing that can be done for mis-matches is to fire them (and if you're mis-matched for your job, now is the time to move on).

The Enthusiastic Incompetent. These folks will happily and willingly take anything on, even though they lack the necessary self-awareness needed to understand their own capabilities. They simply can't do the work they agree to do. These folks are dangerous because they cause mistakes, upsets and rework. Some may be counseled, but if they don't improve over a limited period of time, they should be let go or moved to a position that better suits their skillset.

The Automaton. Automatons require constant monitoring and take up more of their manager or leader's time than most other employees. Their failing is in their inability to do anything beyond the immediate task -- without self motivating behaviors, they can either be kept in a position that provides them with a checklist to accomplish everyday or they should be let go.

The Generators. A Generator, on the other hand, is always adding value, whether directed to or not. These are your blossoming leaders -- the ones who can understand the greater goal and take self-motivating steps to achieve it. Hopefully, your team consists mostly of generators or other personality types who can be successfully mentored to become generators.

The Leaders of Generators. These people are your most precious asset and consist of less than 10 percent of any given staff. They see the big picture and are always initiating work that is of the highest level of importance. They expect everyone around them to be generators and generators love to work with them. They are the center of the super cells of productivity in your organization and they should be given everything they need to do their job.

2. Fit

Before offering or accepting a leadership role, ensure that the position and the leader are the right fit for each other. Consider:

  • What the potential leader brings to the leadership team
  • Whether the new leader will bring balance to the personalities on the team, or if he or she will be overshadowed
  • Whether this role is suited to the potential leader's skillset, or if he or she is simply being promoted for the sake of a promotion

A rigorous analysis of the role and it's needs from multiple perspectives -- skill, personality, mindset, etc. -- will help you determine if the person and the role are the right fit for each other.

3. Presence

Smart workers don't necessarily make smart leaders. Instead, the degree of one's emotional intelligence is often what determines whether or not they will be a good leader. Consider how important the ability to identify and manage your own emotions, as well as the emotions of others, is to a leadership role.

A good potential leader should treat team members with empathy, taking the time to listen to multiple perspectives before making a decision. Before offering or accepting any leadership role, emotional intelligence should be evaluated and any weak areas addressed and improved on before moving into this important role.

4. Practice

Before moving into a leadership role, it can help both the candidate and the promoting officer to have the candidate practice the position. Not only will the experience give the promoting officer a better idea of whether or not the candidate can handle the job, but it will also give the candidate a first hand opportunity to understand what the role will involve before fully committing to it.

The act of leading is not a clear path. It is wrought with decision-making and countless opportunities to look bad in front of others. But if you plan to move forward -- if your organization plans to move forward -- then leading should be a skill that every member of your team has the potential to do.