Saturday, October 3, 2009

Define Leadership for Me

I was invited out to breakfast with a good friend who works in HR. Between sips of coffee and bites of Tabasco-soaked potatoes, Tom mentioned that he has been to leadership seminars that spent a lot of time on fuzzy ideas like "finding the hidden leader inside yourself" but even give a definition of "leadership". That took us in a new direction. I realized that in making up my list of the qualities of a good leader, I didn't even consider the definition of leadership.

This week in Twitter, @marick brought up questions about the meaning and nature of leadership also. Now I can't escape the meme rattling around in the back of my head. It's a bit like when you have three bars of a song in your head and it won't stop repeating until you hear the song in its entirety. What is leadership? It is clearly a kind of skillfulness, but what skill is it? What set of skills define leadership?

My short list of "attributes of a good leader" was easier to come up with:
  • Strong
  • Benevolent
  • Effective
  • Politically savvy

Those are attributes of a good leader, but are not definitions of leadership. This is my quandry today. I would love to hear your best quotes, thoughts, links, definitions, and questions.

Here are some thought-starters:
  • Is it about being personally driven to get work done?
  • Is it wisdom?
  • Is it brashness/courage?
  • Is it the ability to drive people?
  • Is it the ability to draw people?
  • Is it the ability to make people work more?
  • Is it about accomplishment of feelings?
  • Is it about being the superior predator?
  • Intimidation?
  • Gentleness?


  1. I love this quote:

    “If you think you're leading and no one is following you, then you're only taking a walk.” ~ Afghan Proverb

    Ultimately, a leader is someone people follow. No more. No less.

  2. Influence is the core of good leadership.

    All other things follow including people.

    Dr. Bubba

  3. I define Leadership as an empirical process, whereby the thoughts and actions of the individual, aspiring to effect positive change, serve to guide the the thoughts and actions of the many, so that all may come to realise the benefits.  

  4. The most meaningful definition of Leadership I have come across is "Influence with Integrity."

  5. There is good leadership and bad leadership, and I want to step past uses of it to what it is in its core.

    I think Jason Smith and Dr. Bubba have something there. I think that Kim Stevens and Derek Winter are covering proper uses thereof.

    Whatever leadership is, it is the ability to inspire trust to the extent that it engenders cooperation.

    Maybe one is trusted to do something great, maybe with something that is wrong. A new CEO may be trusted to improve an organization's reputation, to revitalize its products after an economic change, to pump the stock so the shareholders can dump it, or to dismantle the organization and auction off its assets.

    A political leader may be trusted to squash the opposition, to press a particular agenda, to preserve a particular environment, or to uphold a particular ideal.

    But this is only starting to get into the "five whys". What is it about a leader that inspires cooperation and trust?

  6. Another quote on leadership: "One mark of a good [military] officer, he remembered, was the ability to make quick decisions. If they happened to be right, so much the better. ..." - from the novel 'Ringworld' by Larry Niven.

  7. I'm loath to accept "influence" as a definition, because it is just as fuzzy and generic as "leadership".

    Leadership is clearly some quality in an individual such that people are likely to do as the individual directs.

    Recent articles seem to indicate that it is partially confidence, that people will be influenced by people who seem assured of their decisions even when they have little past history of success.

    Less recent articles (and some of our readers) suggest that it is the ability to quickly make a decision.

    I have also read that personal presence is a lot of it. To be in reasonably good physical condition, tall, and have good hair seems to help. I have seen great leaders who did not have these attributes, but they certainly seem to improve one's odds.

    Another recent study says that people with longer faces engender more trust than people with round faces.

    It has also been suggested that composure is a major component of leadership. Although I have seen people in management whose composure was not all that we might have wished, those who actually lead tend to maintain their bearing.

    The other common thread seems to be action. One leads by quick action, where one who procrastinates is abandoned.

    Add these up, and you have a person consistently making decisions with confidence and taking immediate action without losing their bearing.

    In addition, they may be tall, physically trim, and well coiffured for maximum effect.

    It's almost a recipe. If one can do all these things, then the question is whether they will be good leaders (integrity, benevolence, effectiveness, etc) or not. Leaders can lead into success or into failure.