Leadership Defined


The plan is to dialogue this week about how leadership is, or might be defined.  There are hundreds of definitions of leadership and this is not an attempt to come to a consensus on a definition.  The hope is to get readers to reflect on what they believe about leadership.  It is also an attempt to give blog participants a general sense of how certain “experts” are describing leadership, in the hope that you may come to your own definition, which can then be used to guide your work. 

 What is leadership? 

Some view leadership as a series of specific traits or characteristics.  Others see it as comprised of certain skills and knowledge.  And some, me included, think of leadership as a process.  This view of leadership, as a process, places an emphasis on social interaction and relationship.  This is the idea that leadership is a type of relationship, one that typically includes influencing others in a certain direction.  This leads to my current working definition of leadership: Leadership is a relationship that involves the mobilizing, influencing, and guiding of others toward desired goals.  This definition does not assume that the goals are shared or even explicit.  The word desire simply means that someone in the relationship, perhaps just the person in a leadership role, wants a particular outcome.  The following are some definitions that have a bias toward leadership as a process:     

  • “Leadership is a process of giving purpose (meaningful direction) to collective effort, and causing willing effort to be expended to achieve purpose.” (Jacobs & Jaques)
  • “Leadership is the process of influencing the activities of an individual or a group in efforts toward goal achievement in a given situation.” (Hersey & Blanchard)
  • “Leadership is an attempt at influencing the activities of followers through the communication process and toward the attainment of some goal or goals.” (Donelly)
  • “Leadership is defined as the process of influencing the activities of an organized group toward goal achievement.” (Rauch & Behling)
  • “Leadership is interpersonal influence, exercised in a situation, and directed, through the communication process, toward the attainment of a specified goal or goals.” (Tannenbaum, et al)

It has been my experience that many organizational leaders, knowingly or unknowingly, view leadership as a set of specific traits or skills.  Below are a few definitions that are grounded in skills and, to a lesser extent, traits.  

  • “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”. (Bennis)
  • “Leadership is about articulating visions, embodying values, and creating the environment within which things can be accomplished.”  (Richards and Engle)
  • “Leadership is the creation of a vision about a desired future state which seeks to enmesh all members of an organization in its net.” (Bryman)
  • “It is a complex moral relationship between people, based on trust, obligation, commitment, emotion, and a shared vision of the good.” (Ciulla)

These definitions are entirely valid perspectives — they are simply different from a leadership as process perspective.  Having said that, it is my impression that, overall, definitions of leadership are becoming more process and relationship oriented. 

How important is it to have a definition of leadership? 

In my role as a leadership consultant it is not necessary for me to share my clients definition of leadership – but it is important to know whether they have a definition and, if they do, what is included in that definition.  If there isn’t an understanding of what leadership entails it diminishes the likelihood that the client will get what they want from our relationship.  It is similar to a client looking to hire a consultant to increase employee engagement and, after digging a bit deeper with the client, discovering that what they are actually looking for is a way to improve the efficiency of work processes

What do you think?

Do you agree that defining relationship is a worthy effort…or is this much ado about nothing?  What is your definition of leadership?  If you don’t have one, and this is an important topic for you, I suggest that you take some time and create a working definition.  It would be great if you would share your definition with the rest of us — but coming up with a definition is an exercise that is ultimately meant for your benefit.

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