We often use the words ‘leaders’ and ‘leading’ interchangeably. However, I believe there is a significant difference between these two terms. So what is this difference? At the heart of this answer lies a simple lesson in grammar.
You see, one of these words is a noun (leader) and one is a verb (to lead). If you are rusty on your grammar (as I am), here is a quick reminder:
A noun is the name of a person, place, thing, or idea.
A verb is a word used to describe an action, state, or occurrence.
When we bestow the title of ‘leader’ on someone, we are referring to a person which makes it a noun. The noun leader describes a role, a position or an office. When we use the word leader as a noun, we focus on the title of leadership. This may be earned (such as a President), it may be bestowed by others (when you are asked to be a team leader) or it may even be inferred (when everyone at the boardroom table looks to you for an answer). Leader is a noun.
However, a person who is a leader (noun) does not necessarily lead (verb). Just because you have been granted a title does not mean you are actually leading. When we use the verb ‘leading’, we focus on the actions of leadership and not the role. Leading may be through our words (Jesus telling his disciples “come follow me”), our actions (standing up to a bully) or our thoughts and visions (Martin Luther Jr. stating “I have a dream”). Leading is a verb.
This means that a leader may not necessarily be leading (because a title and our actions are different). It also means that leading will not always occur by someone who is a leader (because our actions and our title may be different).
As I brushed up on my grammar, I discovered another interesting lesson;
Any English noun can be verbed, but some are more resistant than others.
I cannot read this statement without thinking of the names of people that I have worked with over my lifetime. Some of them seemed to effortlessly use their roles of leadership to accomplish amazing things. They were very good and verbing their noun! However, I can also think of others who held wonderful positions but were inadequate at acting on their duties. They had difficulty verbing their noun. Their verbing process was resistant.
This simple reminder about nouns and verbs, leaders and leading, boils down to the important practice of execution. No matter what title they hold or how knowledgeable they are, the only way a person can lead is by verbing their noun. Effective employees become leaders by verbing their noun! In other words, a title does not make a leader a leader – the act(s) of leading make a leader a leader!
So is leadership a noun or a verb? You can make the choice. But in my world, I know that I look for the verbing process!
Dr. Jeff Suderman an educator, consultant and pracademic who works in the field of organizational development. He is actively working to verb his noun. He partners with clients to improve culture, leadership, teamwork, organizational alignment, strategy and organizational future-readiness. He resides in Palm Desert, California. Twitter: @jlsuderman