Peter Drucker, the preeminent business thinker of the 20th century, wasn't fond of the word leader. He much preferred manager. Ronald Riggio, a professor of leadership and organizational psychology at the Kravis Leadership Institute at Claremont McKenna College (Drucker's old stomping ground), has his own concerns about leadership: that overuse has rendered the word nearly meaningless. In the first of a series of conversations Inc. will be having with experts in the art of leading people, Riggio spoke with editor-at-large Leigh Buchanan.

These days, we seem to slap the term leader on anybody who assumes responsibility for anything. No one is a manager anymore—it's all project leaders and shift leaders. Is the concept of leadership in danger of going the Barney the Dinosaur route, where "everyone is special"?
Leadership used to mean something specific. C-level executives. Leaders of countries. You would never call a middle manager, and definitely not a frontline supervisor, a leader. Now, when anybody kind of picks up the ball and carries it forward, we call those people leaders. What we're really talking about are people who are engaged. And so we're using leadership in a very broad sense.

I can't recall the last time I was at a company that talked about career development. Now everything falls under the rubric of leadership development.
In higher education, we see this all over. We see educational administration programs turned into educational leadership programs. Teachers are going through them, and they might aspire to be principals. But they're just third-grade teachers.

Trying to better yourself is inarguably a good thing. But can't you do that without the goal of becoming a leader?
I don't think everyone sees themselves as a potential leader. I did a leadership development program five or six years ago for a company. The theme this CEO had put in place was, Everyone Should Be Their Own CEO. I was a little taken aback by that. But this was the second year he'd done it, and he told the story of how the previous year, after they'd announced it, the receptionist wanted to improve the reception area so any guest would feel instantly at home. She asked her superiors to tell her who was going to come in over the next two weeks and what their likes and dislikes were. So Mr. Smith walks in the front door, and she'd say, "Mr. Smith, here's your Diet Coke. I know you like to stay at the Hilton, so I booked you a room there." I don't think the receptionist thought she was going to be a leader of the company. It was just about being the best she could be at her job. That was the CEO's intent, even if it was kind of a weird way to introduce it.

In the end, I was so impressed by him and the company that when I got back, I bought a lot of stock in the company. And that's probably my best-performing stock.

So leadership can be initiative. It need not compel or necessarily even inspire others to act.
I think when people talk about leadership in this way, they're describing the phenomenon of getting engaged, not standing on the sidelines. We survey people about the characteristics they most admire in a good leader, and they say integrity and self-motivation—someone who accomplishes things and is inspirational. Those are the same qualities we want to see in workers in an empowered, team-based workspace.

That's interesting, given the success of the Arab Spring and the visibility of the Occupy movement, which have been both praised and criticized for lacking recognized leaders.
Yes, leadership now really refers to a shared process. How are people coming together and making change?

Shared leadership still requires followers. Presumably, that means leaders also must follow.
Most of the qualities that make people effective leaders also make them effective followers. They have to be loyal and help push the organization forward, but they also need the courage to stand up when things are wrong and say so. Some people don't want formal leadership positions, because they know they can get more done if they're not on the radar.

You teach leadership, so presumably it can be taught. What makes leadership easier or harder to learn for some people than for others?
The most important determinant of someone learning to be a leader is whether they want to do it—what's called developmental readiness. It's like in medical intervention programs: The prognosis is much better if the person genuinely wants to give up drugs or alcohol. Some entrepreneurs don't do well at leadership. They love the craziness of starting something up. I would advise them to pass the reins to someone else and find something to do in the company that suits them better. Or start another business.

What does it mean to learn leadership, anyway? What kinds of skills are we talking about?
Let's look at those who are known as "transformational" leaders, who we know from research are the most effective. There are four components to this. First, you have to learn to act like a leader: to manage your image, but in an authentic way. Be straightforward; tell people what you stand for, and then stand for it. Second, you have to be inspirational. Learn what motivates people. Be optimistic; no one is going to follow a pessimistic leader. Put some emotion into it. Third, get to know the people you are leading. Check in with them all the time. Help them to develop. Lastly, stimulate them. Make them think. Make them take responsibility—but always with the positive support.

You have said that many of your students are cynical about leadership.
There's a whole group that comes in jaded about leadership. "God, we've been hearing about leadership since high school and even junior high school. We had to write essays about leadership to get into college. We're sick and tired of leadership." We try to show them it's a legitimate subject to study. There is very serious research going on in leadership trying to answer very serious questions.

Has the paucity of inspirational, effective leaders in public life influenced their opinions?
There's this unblinking camera eye scrutinizing every movement of our high-level leaders, revealing their every flaw. And so I think students have grown up with a level of distrust. For the past 16 or 17 years, I've asked all my classes: Who is the leader you most admire? And it's funny how their responses have changed over time. They used to pick iconic leaders. Now they're picking more close-to-home leaders. Occasionally you still get Martin Luther King or Gandhi. But generally it's a teacher, a coach, or a parent.

Do they ever mention business leaders?
Very rarely.

Why do students consider teachers and parents to be leaders?
Because what those people do and say actually affects their lives.