What Is a Leader Exactly? And Why Do We Care?

Why Bother Defining Leadership?

Defining leadership can feel like a theoretical discussion. It’s not. A practical, usable definition of leadership gives us a powerful tool. With it, we can carefully and consciously develop ourselves and others as leaders, which in turn allows us to carefully and consciously develop the organization as a whole.


We Need An Actionable Definition

So if leadership is our goal, we need a definition. And we need it to be clear and actionable — that is, we need a definition that works in the day to day — that lets us recognize clearly when we, and others who work for and around us, are leading, and when we are not.

But when we look at existing definitions of leadership, they frequently have a theoretical, almost mystical vagueness:

“ …leadership is like the Abominable Snowman, whose footprints are everywhere but who is nowhere to be seen” Bennis & Nanus: ‘Leaders: Strategies for Taking Charge’ (1997)

“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.” Warren Bennis

“Leadership is influence — nothing more, nothing less.” John Maxwell, 1998

Or we get definitions which are pithy to the point of being useless:

“Leadership is a combination of strategy and character. If you must be without one, be without the strategy.”- Gen. H. Norman Schwarzkopf

“The only definition of a leader is someone who has followers” Peter Drucker

We need a definition which is practical. One which can drive our own development and that of others.


A Simple Definition. A Complex Art.

Before we get to a definition it’s important to acknowledge that leadership is a complex art. There are thousands of books, blogs and articles that list the essential traits of a leader, the “must-haves” , the habits and attitudes that are necessary to gain mastery.

This complexity is real. Becoming an effective leader is an accumulation of attitudes and skills that takes long practice.

Listening to a great violin player is an exercise in concentrated simplicity. We are absorbed in the music. The sounds are effortlessly produced. The timing is precise without being forced.

What is concealed is practice. The decades of concentration on tone, on fingering, on scales and practice pieces. The hundreds of performances. The intensity of great teachers.

We engage any field of complexity with practice. We start with small steps — the bow across the strings. And we consciously repeat each step until the next one becomes accessible.

And so it is with leadership.

A simple definition is the description of a long-term goal. Developing the art itself takes learning, practice and work, and as with all arts worth mastering, the learning is never over


A Definition

I came to the following definition after thinking about the people I’ve worked with who were clearly leaders — we know them when we see them. Some were members of teams that I lead, some worked with me in executive positions in tech companies, and a couple were successful, public-company CEOs.

So here it is:

“A leader is somebody who causes other people to get stuff done”

Too blunt? Here’s a more corporate version:

“A leader is somebody with the ability to cause a group of people to affect change”

Clear? Yes. Actionable? Yes.


What’s Important In This Definition

  • leadership is an ability. We don’t define how that ability comes to exist or what it’s made up of. We also don’t ascribe anything mystical to that ability. It’s a set of skills, like any other. And like any other (baseball, singing, ping pong), we are born with some of it, and we learn the rest (and, yes, some people are born with a more natural alignment with that ability than others).
  • leadership is an effect on a group of people. There is no leadership without a group of people. The key is that the leader causes the group to create change.
  • the group causes change. We don’t define the degree of change, or the direction of the change. But change is an essential marker. Running a group in a steady state is a great skill, but it’s not leadership.

But Look!! You Missed A Whole Bunch of Stuff Out!!

Yes, I missed a whole bunch of stuff out. That’s important. I think most definitions of leadership attempt to include traits that we would like our leaders to have, rather than the fundamentals of what leadership is.

For example (this is one, there are many others): Kevin Kruse takes a good shot at the problem of defining leadership, ending up with:

“Leadership is a process of social influence, which maximizes the efforts of others, towards the achievement of a goal”

It’s a good definition. Simple and direct. But it emphasizes social influence. What is that, exactly? If we use our authority at all, are we still leading? And how do we know if we are “maximizing the efforts of others”? Does that mean they are working their hardest? Or producing the best they can? The best they can in the circumstances?

It leaves us struggling.

So, yes, I missed out qualities that appear in other definitions — here are a few:

  • Leaders should create positive change. Well, leaders who produce shoddy products, or unhealthy cultures are still leaders — they’re causing change — it may just not be the change we want. So having identified their ability to lead, can we work on their judgement, their communication — the parts of their startup leadership toolkit that are not well-formed?
  • Leaders work through influence not authority: yes, good leaders work through influence and connection more than authority. But in practice, a deft use of authority can be a powerful tool. Again, part of the skillset, not the definition
  • Leaders have a strong vision. Absolutely, having a vision is an important tool for leadership. But it’s not part of the definition. When you begin a turnaround project do you have a clear vision for success on the first day? Probably not. Are you starting to lead by changing the way the organization is structured, and the way the culture operates? Almost certainly
  • Leaders motivate teams. Well, it’s baked into the definition — people who cause a group of people to affect change are getting that group to move. How the motivation happens is another question, and a rich area for skill development.

So What’s Next?

I have a practical goal in working on this definition: I develop leaders in high-growth organizations. Having a clear, workable definition of leadership is fundamental to that work.

I am very interested in how this definition resonates with readers who are leading in high-growth organizations:

  • is it helpful?
  • what other definitions do you find useful/inspiring?
  • how do you know when somebody is leading? leading well?

And, of course, having defined leadership, we need to define what makes a good, or great leader. Which will be the topic of the next post.


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