Leadership is not a Checklist

Colin Ellis
3 min readAug 2, 2023

In the clickbait arena of LinkedIn there is one piece of content that regularly appears and that is the ‘Leadership List’. You know ’10 Things That Every Leader Must Do’, that kind of thing. (And in the spirit of openness I’ve been guilty of similar posts myself in the past!)

Before I talk more about the list, I also want to acknowledge the other regular leadership content:

The Lessons — Something topical based on what’s currently in the news. ’10 Leadership Lessons You Can Learn From Barbie’ (Wear more pink?).

The Quote — An often misattributed statement from someone who knew a thing or two about the way that life and/or business works. ‘Benjamin Franklin once wrote…’ Did he though?

The Pithy One Liner — 3–10 words often not grounded in any kind of reality. ‘Leaders Eat Last.’ No, they eat when they’re hungry.

But anyway, back to the Leadership List. It’s usually an exhaustive index of things that humans have to consistently do in order to be considered ‘a leader’. It looks something like this:

This particular example even has the list by line length and is a list of traits for the ‘best’ (not worst, obviously) leaders! My particular favourite is ‘Lead by example, not just words’, which actually renders the rest of the list useless or else you get stuck in a continuous loop going back to the top to understand what ‘by example’ means.

The thing about these well-meaning pieces of content is that there are always things missing and, more importantly, literally no human can do all of this at the same time.

In my 30 years as an employee, I worked for lots of good people. People who provided leadership in small moments and only once did I encounter a toxic culture, which isn’t bad in three decades and says a lot about the people that I reported to.

But those that I considered to be consistent leaders left a lasting impression on me either through the kind of human being that they were, how they treated other people, the feedback they provided or the skills they had (which I then shamelessly stole!). Not once were these people referring to a list of things that they were routinely ticking off to ensure that they fitted someone else’s mould of ‘leader’.

These people had two things in common: awareness and tactics.

An awareness of their own strengths, limitations and opportunities for improvement and those of others (regardless of whether they were direct reports or not). And an awareness of what was happening in the world around them and what the business required at that time.

And then, depending on where they were and what they were dealing with, they could call on a suite of tactics to help themselves, individuals or the business to create, maintain or halt momentum.

Ultimately, leadership is a choice to make a positive difference to the lives of others. To that end, leadership is a possibility for any human at any time, of any age in any scenario. And people usually have to figure out how to do this in seconds. They don’t have the time to stop, get out their phones and search for a list on LinkedIn.

Like I said, most of these lists are well-meaning, but they can also be incredibly demotivating and sap the confidence of managers who aspire to create a positive difference. So my advice to people who don’t feel they can match up to these lists is to focus your time elsewhere.

Maybe surround yourself with people who can provide honest feedback, help support your aspirations, increase your confidence or maybe just make you laugh. The latter of which, ironically, never makes it onto the leadership list.

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Colin Ellis

Best-selling Author of Culture Fix | Keynote Speaker | Facilitator | Devoted Dad | Evertonian | Whisky Lover | Likes to laugh, a lot www.colindellis.com