What is Leadership?

What an obvious question! Just what is leadership? But it is a necessary one. If you want to be a leader you first have to have your own favourite answer, or definition of leadership.

Favourite answer? Is there not one standard definition of leadership? No single characteristic of leadership that is so obvious that we all recognise it?

Sorry but, no, there is not. Indeed, there are many different leadership definitions, ranging from the dictionaries, through the text books to those dreamt up by the practitioners.

As you will see, each attempt to define leadership emphasises different aspects of leadership, or different leadership characterisitics, and reflects the originator's leadership values.

Some leadership definitions

Unfortunately, most dictionaries don’t really help us. For example, one actually defines leadership as:

“The ability to lead.”

Thankfully, Wikipedia is more helpful. It says that leadership is:

“A process of social influence in which one person
canenlist the aid and support of others in the
accomplishment of a common task.”

Another answer to what is leadership, by Akhil Shahani, puts it more simply as:

“The process by which a person influences others
to accomplish an objective.”
Leadership definition

Elements of Leadership

I find these interesting because they contain two essential elements of what is leadership; the people elements and the task elements (related to objectives). Every successful leader has to work with both of these.

But I am concerned that these leadership definitions involve a “common task” or “objective”. These words suggest that the end goal is already provided, clearly defined or laid down. Leadership doesn’t always have the luxury of such clearly stated purposes. Sometimes leaders and followers evolve these together, with the leader consulting others to gather opinion and win support.

I prefer to think of leaders as providing direction (that is, a dream of an ideal future or a “vision”) which may then be crystallised into a "common goal" and objectives, perhaps involving some of the followers in doing so. But here we are touching on the idea of leadership style . And thats for another part of the website.

So, lets have another go at defining what is leadership.

More definitions

Turning now to the text books, Peter Drucker, in “The Leader of the Future”, says:

“The only definition of a leader is
someone who has followers.”

While Peter Maxwell, in “21 Irrefutable Laws of Leadership”, says:

“Leadership is influence - nothing more, nothing less.”

My own leadership definition, based upon my own experiences, studies and observation as a practitioner, is that:

“A leader is someone whose direction and approach
other people are willing to follow.”

And therefore, leadership is:

“Influencing others to follow a given direction.”

Implications for Leaders

This definition of what is leadership carries a number of implications. First, within an organisation leaders are not always managers or supervisors, formally appointed by others.

In fact, this is one way of distinguishing between managers and leaders; managers are appointed from above (ie, by more senior management), leaders are appointed (or anointed?) from below (ie, by their followers).

To really grasp what this means, think of terms like “Ring leader” to describe someone who leads a group of people into trouble. Ring leaders are not appointed from above but from within the group. We also talk of some people as being a “Bad influence”. We are concerned about people who are a bad influence because, once again, we recognise their ability to lead others into trouble.

Ring leaders and bad influences are clearly not appointed, but they are most definitely followed.

Secondly, leaders don’t even need to have responsibility for a team. Sometimes people are recognised as having leadership characteristics or qualities by others, who then simply choose to follow what the person says or does. Good examples are people who lead religious (such as Jesus Christ), revolutionary (such as Napoleon) or civil rights (such as Martin Luther King) movements.

Another implication is that being a manager does not make you a leader. A manager may have excellent skills in organising work, creating policies and procedures, following disciplines and delivering services. But if others don’t willingly follow their lead, they are not a leader.

So, leaders must offer others (their followers) a cause, direction or objective that is interesting, attractive or satisfying enough for others to wish to follow.

Finally, is a leader created, or is leadership defined, by giving someone a job title? No, it’s defined by what a person is (their qualities), what they have learned (their skills) and what they do (their actions). Others recognise these attributes and choose, willingly, to follow.

So, to answer the question "what is leadership?", leadership is:

“Influencing others to follow a given direction.”

And it can be thrilling, challenging, scary, satisfying, humbling and very rewarding!

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