Over the last several years, through workshops and leadership development events, I have asked attendees to complete this simple sentence: Leadership is __________.

The original concept came about after years of teaching an organizational behavior class and reviewing leadership research. But there is no universally accepted definition of leadership. But like identifying talent, we know it’s important. We know when we see it in action, but it’s much more ambiguous when we try to define it. That led to my journey to ask leaders among different walks of life, industries and experiences to share their definition.

Here’s what I have learned so far.

Leadership falls into three phases:

  • Becoming a subject matter expert (SME).
  • Learning to support, develop and manage a team.
  • Developing and executing a vision and strategy.

Becoming an SME

The first phase of leadership is having an expertise. Individuals become SMEs in their chosen field. Accountants must master the role of accounting. Forklift operators become expert operators. Financial analysts develop their skills in evaluating, synthesizing and communicating. It is clear for those in leadership positions that their early days were spent mastering their chosen craft.

Those in this entry phase of leadership answer the Leadership Is sentence with:

  • The ability to influence others through one’s action.
  • Developing expertise in your field.

Learning to Support, Develop and Manage a Team

Once expertise is gained, the next phase of leadership comes when the experts are moved into a supervisory role. Generally, based on their expertise, these individuals were promoted, recognized and given the opportunity to explore a new role that has oversight of others. Expertise is what earned them their new role. What keeps them in the role is the ability to work with others, understand how to have difficult conversations about performance and how to motivate, defend and advocate for others.

Those in this phase answer the Leadership Is sentence with:

  • The ability to help other people thrive.
  • Selecting the right team members and providing the guidance necessary for them to be successful.
  • Guiding others to success.

Developing and Executing a Vision and Strategy

The final phase stretches leaders beyond their team to focus on organizational priorities and how individuals can meet and exceed those priorities. Leaders in this phase have risen to some of the highest levels in the organization. Their success is based on their individual expertise and the ability to motivate and manage a team has led them to develop a broader perspective on the organization and how individuals, teams, divisions and departments can work together to achieve greater things.

In my survey, these leaders held positions like chief executive officer (CEO), president, senior vice president, provost and other organizational positions with broad responsibility. However, their response to the Leadership Is sentence were surprisingly consistent:

  • Knowing enough about your organization, your people and your “market” to understand where your organization needs to go and how to motivate people to want to go there, even when they don’t fully appreciate the path or the destination.
  • The capacity to envision a better future and to inspire all members of your community to see and act on it as well.

These responses have given me pause. Are we designing the development of leaders in a logical way? No, we are not! We often focus on the middle phase of leadership and throw a cacophony of terms, experiences, role plays and scenarios into our programs, hoping something will stick. It seems the answer to how to develop an effective leadership plan is to look at our leaders and learn from their journey.

Leadership fundamentally is about having some level of expertise and turning that expertise into supporting, motivating and developing individuals. The growth to upper-level positions is the ability to transcend the team to a broader vision and the ability to inspire others to reach goals. As one leader articulated, leaders inspire a team to go where they didn’t know they wanted to be.

The more I evaluate the responses to my quick ongoing survey, the more clarity develops. We need experts. For some, being a great leader will mean being an SME. Not all experts need to manage a team. Some experts should not be team leaders. But we should be developing everyone in an organization to be an expert. That is Leadership 101 training.

As we advance our leadership program, we need to focus on getting our experts to move beyond their knowledge and expertise and to learn how to frame their experience to help others be successful. Some will not move beyond this phase, and that’s OK. We need experts, and we need the ability to have people on the team that want to accomplish the tasks at hand. That is great leadership. We have all worked with the person who knows how to get the work done expertly; there is always a role for key contributors. For those who want to a build team, our leadership development should focus on how to get the best out of others. A focus on communication, support, motivation and coaching is key to develop phase two leaders.

For the final phase of leaders, how do we develop a vision, inspire others and maintain daily operations? Leaders in this phase take their expertise, their ability to work with others and add insight into transforming the organization to be it’s ideal. We certainly need these leaders, too!

Defining leadership may not be as difficult as we report. But developing leaders needs to have purposeful function and outcome. Individuals can be effective leaders at multiple phases of their careers and in multiple facets of the organization. In short, leadership changes based on the focus, position and organizational priority being met.

For those training present and future leaders, a broader understanding of these different phases can surely impact our work toward better designing programs for different needs and different phases.