What is this thing called leadership?

What is this thing called leadership?

Teams succeed or fail, organizations triumph or disappear and even countries rise and fall largely as a result of the quality of their leadership. No other topic garners more attention in popular business books and articles, and many other disciplines such as psychology, anthropology and philosophy also enjoy tackling this topic. Yet, assemble a room filled with any organization’s “leaders” and ask, “How would you define leadership?” and an immediate awkward silence will eventually be interrupted by a wide variety of tepid responses, many wildly incompatible. Of course, it’s ironic the people that organizations call leaders often struggle with defining the word leadership. So it’s certainly worth asking, “Why is leadership so difficult to define?”

The biggest problem leading to confusion regarding leadership’s definition resides in the fact that people use the term in many different ways. Sometimes an adjective and sometimes a noun, leadership often serves as a catch-all term in casual conversation. It’s true that this sort of informality is of little concern in most day-to-day activities. However, a lack of definitional rigor, particularly absent awareness of this definitional sloppiness, serves as a significant barrier standing in the way of improving leadership performance.

As a way of providing greater precision in the definition of leadership, this article discusses two sides of the definitional coin: what leadership is not and what it is. This brief article provides practical guidance for defining leadership. This discussion is important because selecting, promoting and developing leaders becomes much more effective with a crisper definition of the term leadership.


This is an odd term generally used to identify someone who takes responsibility for his or her own personal development. Good idea…poor term. The problem with this phrase is that leadership requires followers. Self-leadership is a bit like crowded-solitude, an oxymoronic phrase with little meaning. Primarily, the term self-leadership helps market worthwhile (but non-leadership) self-development activities and services. 

A job role

It’s not unusual to hear a question such as, “How many leaders do we have in this organization?” On the surface this seems like a reasonable question; however, it actually muddies the definitional waters significantly. This question simply seeks to identify the number of people who supervise others. Whether or not someone has supervisory responsibilities has absolutely nothing to do with leadership. Using leadership as a noun to describe an organization’s supervisors, or the word leader to describe a particular supervisor, is common but misguided. Some supervisors lead and some do not.

Effective management

Every organization needs good management processes. Planning and budgeting, setting short-term goals, establishing detailed steps, organizing, staffing and controlling all represent critically important activities. But as Harvard’s John Kotter has pointed out in numerous books and articles, these activities and processes, while important, are distinct from leadership. Very often, however, these things are referred to as leadership activities and those who engage in them as leaders. They are not.

Having a great idea

Innovation has never been more important for organizational survival. Every organization must have creative people with terrific ideas. Most modern organizations encourage individuals to engage in thought-leadership. However, novel and creative thoughts in and of themselves do not represent a form of leadership. While thought-leadership does exist, it only exists when others adopt the innovator’s ideas and these ideas are put into practice. Great ideas that are appreciated but not implemented are just cool thoughts, not leadership.

What people do

Perhaps the most important aspect of leadership revolves around an individual’s ability to change things. Leaders develop a vision, then persuade and influence others to set aside their own concerns for a while in order to willfully follow that vision, adopting the leader’s vision as a part of their own vision for the future. Leaders create strategies for producing significant change and aligning people to bring these changes about; they motivate and inspire.

What people achieve

Effective leadership means that the leader’s vision, or something very close to it, indeed does occur. A leader who persuades others to adopt a vision, to pursue a course of action, but whose team/organization does not achieve the vision is, by definition, an ineffective leader. Great leadership means, in part, that groups of people succeed in accomplishing the leader’s vision. This point often generates the question, “So was Hitler a great leader?” Well yes, he was. He was also an evil, despicable and morally reprehensible leader. Good leader vs. bad leader is a moral question. Great leader vs. poor leader is a question of effectiveness. So Hitler was a great leader who was very, very bad.


Leadership is a common topic, but a rare commodity. No other area of study and practice is as important for any group of people hoping to survive and thrive in today’s world. Unfortunately, we too often speak so casually about leadership that we undermine our ability to improve its performance. While much needs to be done to enhance organizations’ leadership selection, promotion and development processes, these improvements begin by answering the question, “What is this thing called leadership?” 

Paul Dyer, Ph.D.

Paul Dyer, Ph.D.

Dr. Paul Dyer is an organizational psychologist who specializes in improving individual, team and organizational performance. He has served as an internal and external business consultant and executive coach with hundreds of individuals and a number of organizations such as the Dow Chemical Company, the Maytag Corporation, M&M Mars, Hilton, Devon Energy and Scholastic Book Fairs. In addition, he has taught organizational behavior and psychology courses at Rollins College and has written two career books: The Ultimate Job Search Survival Guide and Sacred Path, Joyful Journey.