What is leadership?

I was asked recently to put together my thoughts on a philosophy for leadership. While putting this together I had to ask myself, what is leadership? How does one define it?

Leadership is, academically at least, quite difficult to define. Modern leadership scholars “can’t quite come up with a common definition for leadership”, leadership will most likely mean different things to different people (Northouse 2012). Recent definitions tend to share a few common themes: getting followers to do as the leader wishes, influencing people in a non-coercive way, traits (qualities or characteristics that leaders have) and transformation.

Some of the more useful definitions I’ve come across are:

“a process of social influence in which one person can enlist the aid and support of others in the accomplishment of a common task” (Chemers M. (1997) An integrative theory of leadership. Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Publishers.)

“acts by persons which influence other persons in a shared direction” (Seeman, 1960)

“when one or more persons engage with others in such a way that leaders and followers raise one another to higher levels of motivation and morality” (Burns 1978)

Probably the most important element to me is that leadership is an on-going, continuous process and, reading between the lines of these definitions, it can’t really be viewed as a single act in isolation.

The last definition listed highlights the importance of those following the leader as well as the leader. The leader cannot exist without those that undertake the journey or task with them, and the leader must, in many ways be driven by those around them.

These definitions also point to the changing nature of leadership, that is no one is the leader in all situations, instead it changes based on the people involved, the task/direction, and the means of engaging with each other.

As you can see, I lean away from trait oriented (traits are qualities or characteristics that leaders have) definitions as for every trait there appears to be examples of contradicting traits that can result in leadership occurring. For example, Michael Dell is an introvert, yet Richard Branson is clearly extroverted. There are also some that work only within the context of a commercial organisations and clearly have a business context however I find these to be unhelpful, as I believe true leadership applies across all contexts. One cannot be a leader in the workplace without being a leader elsewhere in their lives.



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