Exploring the many ways to define leadership

A Google search for the term leadership yields about 3 350 000 000 results! An Amazon search yields over 50,000 results for books on the subject. Wow! 

Stogdill in the “Handbook of Leadership” after reviewing over 3,000 leadership studies noted that “there are almost as many different definitions of leadership as there are persons who have attempted to define the concept”. 

There’s a long history of interest in the topic of leadership. Despite this trying to find a clear definition of leadership remains challenging. Each author approaches the topic from a different perspective. How can we develop as leaders when there seems to be so little agreement as to what leadership is all about?

“Leadership is like beauty; it’s hard to define, but you know it when you see it.” – Warren Bennis, Distinguished Professor and Author

In our journey to become an effective leader it’s important to be clear as to what leadership means to you. The best place to start is by exploring how others have defined leadership in the past. As you’ll see from the collection of definitions below. Each definition gives us a unique perspective on what leadership means. This rich collection of leadership ideas provides the ideal starting place to explore what leadership is all about.

Let’s dive right in.

Leadership as influence

These definitions describe leadership as the ability to influence others. This perspective of leadership is about inspiring others, with an emphasis on the relationship between leaders and followers. Influence places emphasis on relationships, rather than authority for effective leadership.

  • “Leadership is the incremental influence that a person has beyond his or her formal authority” – Vecchio
  • “Leadership is the capacity to influence others through inspiration motivated by passion, generated by vision, produced by a conviction, ignited by a purpose.” – Dr. Myles Munroe, The Spirit of Leadership
  • “Leadership is the art of influencing others to their maximum performance to accomplish any task, objective or project.” – William Alan Cohen, The Art of a Leader
  • “Leadership is an influence relationship among leaders and followers who intend real changes that reflect their mutual purposes.” – Joseph Rost, Leadership in the 21st Century
  • “Leadership is the process of influencing the activities of an individual or a group in efforts toward goal achievement in a given situation.” – Paul Hersey, Kenneth H. Blanchard and Dewey E. Johnson, Management of Organizational Behavior
  • “Leadership is a process whereby an individual influences a group of individuals to achieve a common goal.” – Northouse, P. G., Leadership: Theory and Practice
  • Leadership is the collective action of everyone you influence. Your behavior–your actions and your words–determines how you influence. Our job as leaders is to energize whatever marshals action within others. –David Caullo

Leadership as process

These definitions describe leadership as a process of change. This is because change is central to effective leadership. The greater the change the greater the need for leadership. More change demands more leadership. Leadership as process involves the development of vision supported by a process of change. Change that moves people towards a better future.

  • “Leadership is the ability to step outside the culture to start evolutionary change processes that are more adaptive.” – Edgar Schein
  • ”All of the great leaders have had one characteristic in common: it was the willingness to confront unequivocally the major anxiety of their people in their time. This, and not much else, is the essence of leadership.” – John Kenneth Galbraith
  • “Leadership defines what the future should look like, aligns people with that vision, and inspires them to make it happen despite the obstacles.” – John Kotter, Leading Change
  • “Leadership is practiced not so much in words as in attitude and in actions.” – Harold Geneen
  • “Leadership is the art of mobilizing others to want to struggle for shared aspirations.” – James Kouzes, Barry Posner, The Leadership Challenge
  • “Leadership is the capacity to translate vision into reality.” – Warren G. Bennis
  • “Leadership is the process of persuasion or example by which an individual (or leadership team) induces a group to pursue objectives held by the leader or shared by the leader and his or her followers” – John W. Gardner, On Leadership
  • “Leadership is the capacity of individuals to spark the capacity of a human community — people living and working together — to bring forth new realities.” – Peter Senge
  • ”Leadership is solving problems. The day soldiers stop bringing you their problems is the day you have stopped leading them. They have either lost confidence that you can help or concluded you do not care. Either case is a failure of leadership.” – Colin Powell

Leadership as service

These are definitions of leadership as being about service to others usually referred to as “servant leadership”. This perspective of leadership speaks to the motives and intentions of the leader, proposing that effective leaders act from the desire to be of service to others.

  • “Leadership is about service to others and a commitment to developing more servants as leaders. It involves co-creation of a commitment to a mission.” – Robert Greenleaf
  • “The first responsibility of a leader is to define reality. The last is to say thank you. In between the two, the leader must become a servant and a debtor. That sums up the progress of an artful leader.” – Max DePree
  • “All of the great leaders have had one characteristic in common: it was the willingness to confront unequivocally the major anxiety of their people in their time. This, and not much else, is the essence of leadership.” – John Kenneth Galbraith
  • “Leadership is an opportunity to serve. It is not a trumpet call to self-importance.” – J. Donald Walters

Leadership as character

These definitions of leadership that speak to the importance of the leader’s character needed for effective leadership. They recognise the importance of who you are as a leader. It’s about the character of the leader and the their values, values such as integrity, courage, honesty, wisdom and respect. It’s an acknowledgement that without character you cannot influence others.

  • “Leadership is a combination of strategy and character. If you must be without one, be without the strategy.” – General H. Norman Schwarzkopf
  • “Leadership: The capacity and will to rally people to a common purpose together with the character that inspires confidence and trust” – Field Marshal Montgomery
  • “Leadership is not a person or a position. It is a complex moral relationship between people, based on trust, obligation, commitment, emotion, and a shared vision of the good.” – Joanne Ciulla
  • “I think leadership comes from integrity–that you do whatever you ask others to do. I think there are non-obvious ways to lead. Just by providing a good example as a parent, a friend, a neighbor makes it possible for other people to see better ways to do things. Leadership does not need to be a dramatic, fist in the air and trumpets blaring, activity.” – Scott Berkun
  • “Successful leadership is leading with the heart, not just the head. They possess qualities like empathy, compassion and courage.” – Bill George
  • ”Leadership is a matter of how to be, not how to do it.” – Frances Hesselbein
  • “The challenge of leadership is to be strong, but not rude; be kind, but not weak; be bold, but not bully; be thoughtful, but not lazy; be humble, but not timid; be proud, but not arrogant; have humor, but without folly.” – Jim Rohn
  • “A good leader is a caring leader — he not only cares about his people, he actively takes care of them.” – Harald Anderson
  • “The art of leadership is saying no, not saying yes. It is very easy to say yes.” – Tony Blair
  • “Leaders must be self-reliant individuals with great tenacity and stamina.” – Thomas E. Cronin
  • “If your actions inspire others to dream more, learn more, do more and become more, you are a leader.” – John Quincy Adams

Leadership as development

These are the definitions of leadership are focused on the development of the leader and others. Growth is a critical part of leadership as it helps leaders deal with the pains associated with the pursuit of vision. And growth empowers other to become leaders wherever they find themselves. Without constant growth leadership fails.

  • “The function of leadership is to produce more leaders, not more followers.” – Ralph Nadar
  • “Before you are a leader, success is all about growing yourself. When you become a leader, success is all about growing others.” – Jack Welch
  • “If your actions inspire others to dream more, learn more, do more and become more, you are a leader.” – John Quincy Adams, American 6th US President (1825-29)
  • “Leadership is a function of knowing yourself, having a vision that is well communicated, building trust among colleagues, and taking effective action to realize your own leadership potential.” – Warren Bennis
  • “The greatness of a leader is measured by the achievements of the led. This is the ultimate test of his effectiveness.” – Omar Bradley
  • “Leadership and learning are indispensable to each other.” – John F. Kennedy

Your turn

As can you can see there is no one single definition of leadership. 

There are as many definitions of leadership as there are leaders. This is a good thing. It recognises that leadership is personal and something we all must wrestle with. 

Leaders are unique. Each leader needs a personal definition of leadership that guides and inspires. 

Use these definitions to inspire you to create your own definition of leadership.

It’s only once you’ve created you own definition of leadership that your leadership journey can begin.