When first working with a client, I ask, “What is your definition of your leadership?”  

Invariably, a pause follows. The eventual response is sometimes tentative, confused, or incomplete.  This happens with new and experienced leaders, in large companies and in start-ups.  Only a few people have a solid answer. Not many leaders have a clear, concise, concrete definition of what being a leader means to them.

The eminent leadership scholar Ralph Stogdill observed, “There are nearly the same number of leadership definitions as there are people who have attempted to define it.”  Here are just a few perspectives:

  • “The first job of a leader is to define a vision for the organization…the capacity to translate vision into reality.” (Warren Bennis)
  • “Leadership is a series of behaviors rather than a role for heroes.” (Margaret Wheatley)
  • “Leadership: the art of getting someone else to do something that you want done because he wants to do it.” (Dwight D. Eisenhower)

It is no wonder then, that a ready answer is not on the lips of every leader. But the lack of a compelling, individual definition can be a serious defect.

Why Define Your Leadership?

When asked, “Why should I have a definition for my leadership?” I answer, “What is the cost of not understanding the foundation of your leadership?  What is the cost of not knowing your core?  If you do not define your leadership, who will?”

A definition provides meaning; meaning reveals purpose; and meaning and purpose combine to inform your identity.  Identity enables a vision of the future--the direction in which leadership is oriented.

Too many leaders see their leadership as a series of tasks. But a proper leader has a different identity from non-leaders and, therefore, needs a distinct definition.  Tasks are necessary, although starting with tasks without first grasping the wider, deeper picture of leadership identity will generate unfocused, unsustainable action.

I worked with a startup CEO who initially stated her definition as “increasing revenue.” Another client, a corporate vice president of engineering, gave his definition as “controlling innovation and product releases.”  These are valuable goals and, as it turned out, activities that needed to be handled by others.  They were too narrow and too small to be adequate definitions of leadership.

Over time, the CEO arrived at a definition of “moving shared purpose forward” (one of my personal favorites). The VP of engineering settled on “creating and maintaining an environment where others can be successful” (a variation of an existing definition).

Both leaders saw that their leadership was not about doing more “things.” It was about defining themselves properly from the beginning in order to better understand the things they needed to do. This then informed their role, tasks, decisions, activities, etc.

No Single Definition, and Rightly so

There is no one single definition of leadership because there is no one single leader.  Leadership is deeply personal and individual. Each individual must have their own deeply personal definition as their center, refuge, and guide.  This is one reason there may be as many definitions of leadership as there are leaders.

If you do not have a definition of your leadership, here are some more perspectives. 

  •  “The art of mobilizing others to want to struggle for shared aspirations.” (Jim Kouzes and Barry Posner)
  • “You have to look at leadership through the eyes of the followers and you have to live the message.” (Anita Roddick)
  • “Leadership is the process of persuasion…by which an individual induces a group to pursue objectives held by the leader.” (John W. Gardner)
  • “The first responsibility of a leader is to define reality. The last is to say thank you. In between, the leader is a servant.” (Max DePree)
  • “Our chief want is someone who will inspire us to be what we know we could be.” (Ralph Waldo Emerson)

What is Your Definition?

I would really like to learn what you use as the definition of your leadership--either an existing definition or one of your own creation--and the process you used to arrive at it.

Please leave a comment and share your definition. Thanks very much!