How to Define Leadership

What is the definition of leadership? Everyone seems to have their own explanation. So, here's our 'Top 10' inspiring leadership definitions... for now.

How to Define Leadership

What is the definition of leadership? Everyone seems to have their own explanation. So, here's our 'Top 10' inspiring leadership definitions... for now.

How to Define Leadership


Now then. What is leadership? It seems like a simple question, and yet it continues to vex popular consultants and professionals alike.


Look up “Leadership Definition” in a Google search and in .59 seconds you’ll be greeted with 2,620,000,000 results. And each definition is as unique as there are individual leaders.  So, how do we define this oh-so-murky term?


Well, leadership doesn’t have to have a set of required personality traits, attributes or even a title. There are many styles and many more paths to effective leadership. So, we’re just going to be looking at effective leadership for now. Effective as in for the greater good, not evil.


In which case, let’s run through our all-time favourite definitions of leadership. Pick and choose them as you see fit for your leadership journey.


None are absolute. All are helpful.


  1. “The highest calling of leadership is to unlock the potential of others.” – Carly Fiorina


Leadership is defined by unlocking potential


Rest assured, you’ve heard of unlocking potential in leadership talks. This is a big aspect of leadership. Effective leadership enables the full potential in others.


Great leaders have the ability to see people’s undiscovered or under-utilised potential. And then give that potential a platform for expression. They unlock it!


Now, realising and releasing the potential of others requires courage. Courage on the part of the leader and the led. You’ll find many hiring managers worry about minimising the risk of failure. And so, risk management takes precedence over leadership. On the flip side, real leaders see risk in a more positive light.


Leadership requires confidence. Great leaders aren’t afraid of giving people new chances. And they also work to create an environment that allows others to be courageous. They engage, support and work with their followers to take up new challenges, build new skills, and unlock hidden talents.


Great leadership involves coaching and nurturing followers. The more you invest in supporting others, the more they will grow. So, great leaders share advice and knowledge freely and prioritise the wellbeing of their followers.   


2. “A leader is best when people barely know he exists when his work is done, his aim fulfilled, they will say: we did it ourselves.” – Lao Tzu


Now, this where the paradox of leadership becomes apparent. This is the art of leadership at its best: the art that conceals art.


It’s “invisible” leadership that wields real influence. Leadership inspires and guides others towards a certain outcome. And it does it in a way that followers feel like they had a choice, rather than being led. This is where leadership is most effective: in subtlety.


When followers feel like they did something by personal choice, they are empowered by their sense of autonomy, decision-making and achievement. They feel they have a greater share in the achievement.


Invisible forces are often more powerful and embedded than those which are apparent. And so, leadership is epitomised when the leader’s goals are attained by (the unwittingly guided) followers.


3. “Leadership and learning are indispensable to each other.” – John F. Kennedy


Leadership is defined by learning


Leaders cannot lead without the desire to learn and continue learning. Leadership involves learning and discovery. Be it learning from other thought leaders or even from their own followers.


Leaders are eager to update their perspective on society and business. To discover, anticipate, and adapt. In this sense, leadership requires one to readily adapt their internal and/or external worlds to the needs of the times (and their followers).


It’s this constant evolution that’s vital for leadership to take place. Leadership does not suppress growth, but inspires it! And this growth can only be enabled by engaging in learning and discovery. Basically, leadership that doesn’t evolve will eventually dissolve.  


4. “Innovation distinguishes between a leader and a follower.” – Steve Jobs


This is same-same but different from the leadership = knowledge definition. Knowledge is filling the bucket. Innovation is thinking up a whole new bucket.


Leadership involves innovation; exploring (and pursuing) endless possibilities. Possibilities that become reality as they pave the way for others to follow. And leadership without innovation simply becomes enforcement… or reinforcement.


Leaders innovate, they create, and they revolutionise. Followers on the other hand simply adopt new innovations or stand by old traditions. Ideas and ways of being that were never theirs, to begin with.


5. “That is what leadership is all about: staking your ground ahead of where opinion is and convincing people, not simply following the popular opinion of the moment.” – Doris Kearns Goodwin


Again, leadership involves discovery. Real leaders don’t follow. They lead. Aka, they don’t follow the masses. In basics, leadership is comprised of: Leadership in thought, and leadership in action. Leaders step outside the way things are done and imagine how things could be. Next, they convince and lead others there.


Real leaders break from the crowd. They aren’t doing what everyone else is doing, which is why the status quo is the arch nemesis of great leadership. In which case, leadership is nothing if not understanding the need for change. And then, possessing the ability and courage to deliver it.


6. “The function of leadership is to produce more leaders, not more followers.” – Ralph Nader


Leadership is defined by creating more leaders


Leadership is much more than just inspiring a following. Great leaders create more leaders. They inspire and cultivate leadership skills in others.


A culture of leadership, where leaders allow others to think and act like leaders, is a recipe for success. By creating more leaders, you can inspire many others to discover and passionately pursue their own interests and skill sets.


Management that inspires and builds others’ confidence negates the pattern of follower dependency. It also increases the capacity for change; at a personal, organisational, or societal level. And change is a defining component of leadership!


Expanding the potential of your workforce by aligning with their purpose and values, increases their capacity to create the results they want and to succeed.  


7. “If you have to tell people you are, you aren’t.” – Margaret Thatcher


Titles don’t make leaders. Actions make leaders. People will see and sense whether someone is truly a leader. If you have the characteristics of a leader, then that leadership is evident to others.


True leaders don’t need to tell others to follow them. Their actions set an example and inspire others to follow. If you have to explain that you’re a leader, all signs point to the fact that you’re not actually leading.


8. “To get others to come into our ways of thinking, we must go over to theirs; and it is necessary to follow, in order to lead.”— William Hazlitt


Leadership is defined by listening


Leadership is produced by mutual respect and understanding. Leaders don’t just tell, they listen. Because like every (good) relationship, leadership is a two-way process.  


Leadership involves listening to your followers, rather than creating a monopoly on ideas and direction. And by listening to their followers and paying attention to how they think, leaders can more effectively inspire people in a direction.  


There is also a lot a person can learn about being a good leader by being a good follower. Good followers are passionately committed, deeply involved, collaborative, and support a good leader.


And so, effective leadership incorporates the qualities of good followership. They mutually commit, collaborate, support and inspire.  



9. “Not the cry, but the flight of a wild duck, leads the flock to fly and follow.” – Chinese Proverb


Leadership requires one to create action through action. It’s not enough to tell. Leadership means setting an example by which others can follow. By walking their talk, true leaders create trust and respect. They become the person that others want to follow.


Leadership becomes true and authentic when one leads honestly and authentically. And nothing says this quite like actions that match words.


Leadership can’t exist if there isn’t someone leading the way. You can’t influence with words that don’t have a correlating action. Leadership determines what behaviours create desirable outcomes to be achieved.   


10. “True leadership stems from individuality that is honestly and sometimes imperfectly expressed.” – Sheryl Sandberg


Though some may try, leadership cannot be carefully pinned down to a bullet list of defining rules or qualities. There is no one set way to lead. In which case, leadership can be defined by the ability to communicate a unique perspective and to bring others along on their individual leadership journey.


Leadership derives from authenticity over perfection and is the ability to inspire this in others through honest (not manipulative) expression.


Final Thoughts


Over the years, leadership and management have been given a few too many overly simplistic and reductionist explanations: Leadership is someone who has followers… leadership is the capacity to translate vision into reality… leadership is influence…


Ultimately, leadership is multi-faceted. It is comprised of so many ways of being and thinking. Which makes one clear-cut definition virtually impossible. No matter how hard the dictionary or knowledge authorities may try, leadership cannot be defined (and enacted) in one “true” sense. It does not have a set of required personality traits, attributes or even a title, and there are many leadership styles and many paths to effective leadership.


So defining leadership simply boils down to finding your why, following your version of leadership. And then, being open to changing it.

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