Leadership is a Verb.

What makes a great leader?

Look at any job advertisement or ask any HR professional and you’ll get a list that looks something like this:

Leaders are responsible, experienced; they’re most likely college-educated. They’re great at communication; they’re empathetic, smart, and inspirational. They’re authoritative.

Now, this is not entirely wrong — the incredible leaders and leaders-in-waiting I’ve encountered over the years have, indeed, possessed many of these qualities.

But if you want to know whether the employee standing in front of you has what it takes to climb the ranks, or if you are fit to lead a team of your own, you need more than a bunch of management buzzwords.

You need more than a list of impressive-sounding adjectives.

Because true leadership is a verb.

Forget the title embossed on your business card, how you describe yourself on your LinkedIn profile, or what your CV says, leadership isn’t about what you ARE, it’s about what you DO.

It’s about the action you take and how you show up, day in, day out.

Take my grandfather, Pop, for example. He didn’t look like your typical leader and if you’d asked him if he identified as such, he’d have told you that he doesn’t really think about things like that.

If you’d gone a step further and asked him whether he agreed that leadership was a verb you’d have been met by a blank stare. After all, he only made it as far as 7th grade — grammar wasn’t exactly high on his list of priorities. And a college education? Forget about it.

But if you’d watched Pop in action, whether he was tending his farm or working as a construction manager, I guarantee you’d have been left in no doubt that the man knew how to lead.

Because Pop really was a man of action.

He was from a different era, already in his fifties when my memories of him begin, and completely uninterested in analyzing whether leadership was a noun, adjective, or whatever. All he knew was the key to leadership, and a job well done, was a firm commitment to taking action.

This man rode horseback all the way from Wisconsin in 1918 at the age 18 to attempt to enlist in the Army in New York to fight in the “war to end all wars”. The war ended before he could enlist so he decided to ride back west, often stopping along the way to help manage farms and work on construction projects as a job superintendent. Pop was a natural leader and had multiple opportunities to stay along his journey but he had committed to his vision of heading west.  Along this journey Pop met my Grandmother in Iowa where they married and raised two daughters. In 1934, Pop and his family took the “Grapes of Wrath” trip to the west coast to escape the dust bowl of the Midwest during the Great Depression. Pictures I have seen show them in a Model T Ford stacked high with what furniture they could carry.

Throughout his life, and his many journeys, he showed an incredible amount of heart and character (two adjectives that definitely count when it comes to leadership!), but it was his commitment to taking action that helped him shape a better life for his family, run a farm, and then take the lead on countless successful construction projects. His commitment to action was the glue that allowed all of his other leadership attributes — his heart, his character, his empathy, his innate intelligence — to shine.

The military: the ultimate confirmation that leadership is a verb.

And it was Pop’s commitment to action that inspired my own path to leadership, and my realization that leadership is a verb.

As a recruit for the US Navy Seabees, I’d been told during boot camp that I would never be assigned to a ship. You see, Seabees were a Construction Battalion designed to be a combat-ready Navy construction company capable of building stuff in a combat zone — training about ships was deemed unnecessary.

So naturally, my very first duty station was on-board the USS Maury.

As if that wasn’t daunting enough, it turned out that I was the most senior of all the Seabees and Marines attached as surveyors to the ship. I might have been fresh out of training but because I had college and work experience as a surveyor, I entered the military as an E-5 through a special boot camp in Gulfport, Mississippi.

Now, I may have been the most senior E-5 on the SS Maury but nearly all of the other E-5s had way more military experience than me. And do you think they cared even a little about my college education, my responsible nature, my empathy, or any of my other leadership “adjectives”?

Not one bit!

That assignment could easily have been both the beginning and the end of my leadership career, but luckily I had Pop to guide me. I channeled my grandfather and decided I would gain the trust and respect of my fellow E-5s by my actions, not my credentials. There was no room for lip service, I had to act and convince them that I was willing and able to add skin to the words.

I had to prove that leadership was a verb.

It worked. I gained their respect, not because of who I was, but because of what I did, and the actions I took. I proved to them — and to myself — that action is always the glue that binds all of those other leadership adjectives together and makes them work.

Whether you’re talking about the more well-known leadership attributes like honesty and responsibility, or my own top tier leadership attributes like character and integrity, heart, and commitment, none of them are worth anything without action.

Yes, leadership is most definitely a verb. And after a quick grammar lesson, I’m sure Pop would have agreed.