What is Leadership Anyway?


When Justice Potter Stewart was asked to define pornography he famously said he could not define it, but he certainly knows it when he sees it. So too can be said for leadership. We all know a great (or really crummy) leader when we see one, but the majority of us cannot come up with a common definition that isn’t a million miles long because we all look at leaders differently, it seems to be such a case-by-case thing to define, and everyone wants something different in a leader at different times. I don’t like the idea of having a formal definition of leadership because in doing so, we either limit the potential of leaders, or we expand the definition to be so large that we set ourselves (and our leaders) up for failure and disappointment.

There are many different types of leaders out there (transactional, transformational, authentic, and servant, to name a few) but to truly be an effective leader we cannot always rely on one style. What we can do is learn from all these styles and become a more adaptable leader, allowing ourselves to not get trapped in one style. We need to realize that following a set script all the time is not a fail-safe way to lead, and perhaps even more importantly, we need to learn that failure is not something to run from, rather is should be embraced as a learning experience. To be an effective leader we must be adaptable. Further, while I may not like setting a definition for leadership, I do believe we should come up with a few “sound bites” for it. Something that embraces the key functions of a leader, but still leaves the door wide open for more interpretations. To me, those sound bites would be charismatic, caring, future-focused, and visionary. However, if we give a few points, we give room for interpretation and creativity, allowing for leadership roles to blossom.

As humans (heck, animals do this as well), we have always looked to leadership to help us survive, accomplish tasks and work more efficiently. Leaders came out of the woodwork out of necessity. Pack leaders and tribe leaders often came about naturally. There was no definition of what a leader was and yet they still existed, and they still succeeded. We needed something and they had that “something” to offer.

The point I’m trying to make is that what we have needed in a leader has been different during each era. I wonder what life would be like today had the cavemen written down what leadership meant. Would we have progressed as a species to where we are today or would we be further advanced? I am not sure any of us know the answer. However, what we do know is that there came a time in history where being the strongest man in the group was no longer enough to lead. Somewhere along the way people realized strength, while important was no longer the end all be all of leadership; leaders needed to be wise, calculating, and have a certain vision of their community’s future as well. Certainly there were rules in place about leadership roles and what they meant, just like there are today; yet I cannot help but wonder if the lack of distinct definition enabled us to persevere and move forward, mostly because I think most people fear change so much that they will hold on to things (like a definition) and not allow change to occur with the times, even if it leads to a better future.

So if we don’t have a clear and concise definition of leadership, you may be asking yourself how we know if a leader is successful. We can judge the success of a leader by looking at a few key factors.

  1. Examine the leader’s style and work and determine if she is working effectively with other leaders in the organization as well as her staff.
  2. Look for a general consensus from the leader’s staff and ask them several questions: Do they feel respected? Do they feel empowered? Do they feel leader has given them a clear and easily understood vision of the future? Has the leader exhibited empathy towards their staff? Do they support those who may need additional help for some reason out of the ordinary (i.e., employees out sick when there is a deadline, a hurricane traps most employees in their homes)? I would also examine her ability to encourage her “followers” to step outside their comfort zone, to inspire them to do more than what is expected, and inspire her staff to work with others outside their core group to accomplish a goal.
  3. Take a look at the leader herself. How does she handle herself in high stress situations? Does she speak confidently and have a presence about her that encourages others to respond to her?

I recently heard someone say that a true leader gives his or her followers the tools they need to become leaders in their leadership-skillsown right. This is a remarkably beautiful idea and the only way to accomplish this is when leaders and followers work hard to keep lines of communication open, remain transparent and encourage each other to hold fast to their responsibilities. Leaders like Harvey Milk, Martin Luther King Jr. and Gloria Steinem did just that. All three of these people were able to take an issue that was so personal to them and their communities and bring it to light for others who either were not aware of the problem or didn’t know how to find their power from within to make a difference. These three people may have used different methods to accomplish their goals, but they had two things in common: 1) they did it in a way that was peaceful and respectful to both their followers and the general public, and 2) they involved others in their community that otherwise would not have seen a reason to get involved.

While the issues they were fighting for may have been more imperative than what we are usually doing at the organizational level, the leadership traits they exhibited still hold true for everyone at every level. We will always need leaders that are capable of exhibiting compassion, strength, trust, and ethical behaviors, because at the end of the day, the rest of us mimic them. Furthermore, Harvey Milk, Martin Luther King Jr., and Gloria Steinem met with others who would otherwise have no stake in their cause and gave them reason to care. They did not use force or coercion to make their point (as many leaders inside organizations tend to do); they used logic. They met with constituents and explained the vision and meaning of their cause. They encouraged their followers to stand up and join them. More importantly, these three gave them power they otherwise may not have realized they had.

This entry was posted in Change Management, Employee Development, Human Resources, Leadership, Leadership Development, Organizational Development and tagged , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to What is Leadership Anyway?

  1. Nice post. One of the things that’s helped me get away from the neat-and-tidy-yet-often-too-constricting definitions of different concepts is a phrase that several of my grad school professors would use: “all models are wrong, some models are useful.” To an extent, I think this applies to narrow definitions, too (all narrow definitions are wrong… though some have features that can be quite useful). I agree with you – the danger about being too dogmatic about leadership definitions (or political points of view or definitions of pornography) comes when there is no room for flexibility or adaptability.

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