This got me thinking, what is your definition of leadership? Over the years I have read many books and attending seminars on leadership. I have found that only few people have a solid answer to this question. Few have a clear definition of what leadership means for them personally.
The definition of leadership has been a thorny issue for many years with each author approaching the topic from a different perspective. This is not to say that any of the definitions are right or wrong, rather each attempt exposes a different and valuable facet on what leadership means and how it’s expressed. Therefore it’s useful to explore the different definitions, perspective and viewpoints on leadership.
Leadership as Influence
These definitions describe leadership as a process of influencing others. It’s the ability of the leader to build relationships and influence people’s behaviour as required to execute the vision. The outcome of leadership is about changing the behaviour of people. This perspective of leadership is focused on inspiring and motivating others, with an emphasising the relationship between leaders and followers.
- “Leadership is influence – nothing more, nothing less.” – John Maxwell, The 21 Irrefutable Laws of Leadership
- “Leadership is the incremental influence that a person has beyond his or her formal authority” – Vecchio
- “Leadership requires using power to influence the thoughts and actions of other people.” – Zalenik, A., Managers and Leaders: are they different?
- “Influencing people – by providing purpose, direction, and motivation – while operating to accomplish the mission and improving the organization.” - US Army Manual
- “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.” – Hersey, P., Blanchard, K., Dewey, E.J., Management of Organizational Behavior
Leadership as Change
These definitions describe leadership primarily as a process of change supported by social influence and persuasion. Change is central to effective leadership. The greater the change the greater the need for leadership. More change demands more leadership. Therefore leadership requires leaders develop vision and future direction, to influence people to move towards the vision to achieve a shared goal.
- “Leadership is the ability to step outside the culture to start evolutionary change processes that are more adaptive.” - Edgar Schein
- “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 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 art of mobilizing others to want to struggle for shared aspirations.” – Kouzes, J.M. and Posner, B.Z., 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 Sense
Leadership as Service
Then there the 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 as Character
There are definitions leadership that refer to the importance of the leader’s character for effective leadership. These recognise the important of integrity, trust and the character of the leader. This is the recognition that without character and integrity, people will not trust the leader and without trust leaders cannot influence others to follow them on a journey of change.
- “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
Leadership as Development
There a a number of definitions of leadership that focus on the responsibility of the leader to grow and develop others into leaders. They highlight the importance of knowing and expressing who you are as a leader. These definitions recognise the need for the personal development of the leader and their constituents so they are able to effectively deal with the challenges of change brought about by a challenging vision.
- “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 above definitions provide an overview of some of the most widely reference definitions of leadership.
What’s Your Personal Definition of Leadership?
As you would have noticed from the collection of leadership definitions above that 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 deeply personal and a topic to be wrestled with by each of us as we prepare to lead. Leaders are unique and each leader needs a personal definition of leadership that guides and inspires them. Unless we understand what we mean by leadership it becomes difficult to select, develop and grow leaders.
As leadership is personal and unique to the individual, having your own personal definition provides an anchor for your role as leader. Your definition of leadership affects how you think about your role, how you act, your relationship with others and ultimately your results.
If you don’t as yet have a personal definition of leadership take some time over the next week to develop one that’s your own. I would suggest the following process to create your own personal definition of leadership:
- Review the definitions listed previously as a source of inspiration. Highlight those that resonate with you personally.
- Start a conversation with your peers and others on how they define leadership. Use these conversations to stimulate and challenge your own thinking.
- Work on and revise your personal definition as you go.
- Your personal definition should create awareness for you concerning to your role as leader and help you answer the question, “How do I know when I’m leading?”.