Make your own free website on

Leadership in the Workplace

Home | All about leadership | Activities and Exercises | Webliography | The Three Legs of the Tripod

Definition of Leadership



Some of the common ideas that others include in leadership definitions include exerting influence, motivating and inspiring, helping others realize their potential, leading by example, selflessness and making a difference. For perspective, we include several other common definitions :

Leadership DefinitionLeadership Definition : The Collins English Dictionary. ( © 1998 HarperCollins Publishers ) leadership (n) 1. The position or function of a leader. 2. the period during which a person occupies the position of leader: during her leadership very little was achieved. 3. a. the ability to lead. b. (as modifier): leadership qualities. 4. the leaders as a group of a party, union, etc.: the union leadership is now very reactionary.

This dictionary definition of leadership focuses on the position (singular or collective), tenure and ability of leaders. As such, it misses key points about the purpose and hallmarks of effective leadership.

Leadership DefinitionLeadership Definition : Peter Drucker : The forward to the Drucker Foundation's "The Leader of the Future" sums up leadership : "The only definition of a leader is someone who has followers." To gain followers requires influence (see John Maxwell's definition below) but doesn't exclude the lack of integrity in achieving this. Indeed, it can be argued that several of the world's greatest leaders have lacked integrity and have adopted values that would not be shared by many people today.

Leadership DefinitionLeadership Definition : John C Maxwell : In the 21 Irrefutable Laws of Leadership, John Maxwell sums up his definition of leadership as "leadership is influence - nothing more, nothing less." This moves beyond the position defining the leader, to looking at the ability of the leader to influence others - both those who would consider themselves followers, and those outside that circle. Indirectly, it also builds in leadership character, since without maintaining integrity and trustworthiness, the capability to influence will disappear.

Leadership DefinitionLeadership Definition : Warren Bennis :  Warren Bennis' definition of leadership is focused much more on the individual capability of the leader : "Leadership is a function of knowing yourself, having a vision that is well communicated, building trust among colleagues, and taking effective action to realize your own leadership potential."

Leadership DefinitionLeadership Definition : Roman Catholic Diocese of Rochester :  For the purposes of the Leadership Development Process of the Diocese of Rochester, their leadership definition is "the process of influencing the behavior of other people toward group goals in a way that fully respects their freedom." The emphasis on respecting their freedom is an important one, and one which must be the hallmark of Christian leadership. Jesus influenced many diverse people during his ministry but compelled no-one to follow Him.

Leadership can be either the process/concept of leading or those entities that perform the act of leading. One can categorise the exercise of leadership as either actual or potential:

  • actual - giving guidance or direction, as in the phrase "the emperor has provided satisfactory leadership"
  • potential - the capacity or ability to lead, as in the phrase "she could have exercised effective leadership"; or in the concept "born to lead".

Leadership can have a formal aspect (as in most political or business leadership) or an informal one (as in most friendships). Speaking of "leadership" (the abstract term) rather than of "leading" (the action) usually implies that the entities doing the leading have some "leadership skills" or competencies. Several types of entities may provide or exhibit leadership, actual or potential, including:

  • a person in the position or office of authority, such as a President [1]
  • a person in a position of office associated with expertise, skill, or experience, as in a team leader, a chief engineer, or a parent
  • a group or person in the vanguard of some trend or movement, as in fashion trend-setters
  • a group of respected people, (called a "reference group" by sociologists) such as business commentators or union spokespersons [2]
  • a product that influences other product offerings in a competitive marketplace

The term "leadership" can characterise the leadership given by an entity and also the period of the leadership, as in "During the 1940s Russia was under Stalinist leadership". In formal hierarchies the term can also serve to describe the position or relationships which allow and legitimize the exercising of leadership behavior.

"Leadership" can come from an individual, a collective group of leaders, or even from the disincarnate -- if not mystical -- characteristics of a celebrity figurehead (compare hero). Yet other usages have a "leadership" which does little active leading, but to which followers show great (often traditional) respect (compare the courtesy title reverend). Followers often endow the leader with status or prestige. Aside from the prestige-role sometimes granted to inspirational leaders, a more mundane usage of the word "leadership" can designate current front-runners that exercise influence over competitors, for example, a corporation or a product can hold a position of "market leadership" without any implication of permanence or of merited respect. (See also price leadership.) Note that the ability to influence others does form an integral part of the "leadership" of some but not all front-runners. A front-runner in a sprint may "lead" the race, but does not have a position of "leadership" if he does not have the potential to influence others in some way. Thus one can make an important distinction between "being in the lead" and the process of leadership. Leadership implies a relationship of power - the power to guide others.

In some languages the term for a leader and the term for the principle of leadership have very different meanings. Furthermore, note the different connotations of a synonym of the word "leader" adopted from the German: the word Führer, and its acompanying ideas on the Führerprinzip.

In would-be controlling groups such as the military, political parties, ruling élites, and other belief-based enterprises like religions or businesses, the idea of leadership can become a Holy Grail and people can come to expect transformational change stemming from the leader; such entities may encourage their followers and believers to worship leadership, to respect it, and to strive (whether realistically or not) to become proficient in it. Followers in such a situation may become uncritically obedient. Personal strategies that one can use to guard against the unrealistic expectations associated with belief in leaders include maintaining a questioning and skeptical attitude, and having confidence in one's own decision-making abilities. Within groups, alternatives to the cult of leadership include using decision-making structures such as co-operative ventures, collegiality, consensus, anarchism and applied democracy.