Defining a leader

Written by Nora McGlinchey 

Working in communications, I deal in words and their meanings. I’m known for asking lots of questions in my quest to find out what’s happening, what people need to know and how we can best convey this. For me, the concept of leadership and leading is particularly interesting because it so hard to define yet everyone knows when they are seeing it done well or poorly. Ask ten different people to define leadership, and you are likely to get several different answers.

Room for interpretation

Take Fair Way for example. Like many other organisations, we have a purpose statement which essentially is the simple reason we exist. Our purpose is ‘leading the prevention and resolution of disputes.’ On the face of it, this is a simple and clear statement. But actually, there is quite a lot of room for interpretation here.

To some, leading implies followers. It implies being a trend setter or ahead of the curve in an aspirational way. This requires thought-leadership and innovation.

Leading can also be a statistical statement. For Fair Way, leading can be interpreted as in terms of volume - handling the largest volume of disputes, having the largest specialist dispute resolution workforce and having both national and international capacity.

Leading can also be a quality statement. What is the calibre of the disputes that we see? Are we setting the benchmark for quality? Are we considered to be the gold-standard in dispute resolution? Do our practitioners have the highest level of accreditation? Are we considered the experts?

Leading can also mean having measurable and demonstratable results. How are our resolution rates tracking? What’s our Net Promoter Score (NPS)?

That simple statement - leading the prevention and resolution of disputes – isn’t quite as simple as it first sounds when you start unpacking it. While that room for interpretation is a good thing in an aspirational statement or goal because it allows each individual to interpret, adopt and contribute to the objective in their own way, it does demonstrate that you can’t assume everyone shares the views about leadership.

What can we take from this?

Having a conversation about leadership with your colleagues and team is a worthwhile exercise. People look for different things in a leader – some may seek regular direction and assurance, while others look for someone who will encourage them to give things a go and let them learn from any mistakes.

Recently, I became a people manager here at Fair Way. In one of my early meetings with my new direct report, we had a good conversation about what he likes from a manager and the type of leadership style that works well from him. Although I had been working with my colleague for almost two years and had quite a good understanding about his workstyle, there was enormous value in having that conversation.

In previous roles, I’ve participated in group discussions where everyone has been asked in advance to think about an example of a good leader and to share this with the team. Examples varied from professional athletes and team managers, celebrity entrepreneurs and world leaders to people’s relatives and favourite teachers. It was a good way to learn about those around me and to get some ideas around how I could develop as a leader.

You might be wondering who I chose as my example of a good leader. It was a little abstract – it wasn’t a celebrity or politician or even a person at all! I spoke about Canadian Geese who are known for migrating thousands of miles in a ‘flying V’ formation. These geese work together by flying in an aerodynamic formation, significantly increasing the distance that they travel compared to flying solo. The bird at the front essentially does the heavy lifting for a period, before moving back in the ‘V’ and allowing someone else to take their place. What I like about this example is that together as a team, they achieve more, and everyone is encouraged to learn and take the opportunity to lead the group.

If there is one lesson to take away from this short article, it’s that one size of leadership does not fit all. It’s important to have some clarity from those around you about what they value from a leader. This applies to everyone on a team – not just people with line management responsibilities. The people who surround us often provide the motivation, inspiration and encouragement that we need to push ourselves. However, what empowers one person, though well intended might stifle another. Having an open conversation as a team about leadership is great way to make sure everyone gets the support, direction or encouragement that they need.

About the Author

Nora is Communications Manager at Fair Way. Nora manages the Communications Team who provide digital media and communications services across all of the Fair Way services. 

Nora joined Fair Way in 2017, initially as a Communications Advisor before the role expanded in 2019.  She is originally from Ireland and studied at Trinity College Dublin. Nora has a background in communications and project management, having previously worked within organisational change and transformational change programmes in the public sector and a variety of roles in the private sector.

To get in touch with Nora, please email