What is leadership?
It’s a simple question – but somehow, there is no simple answer.
It even stumps the experts. Ralph Stogdill was a psychology professor who literally wrote the book on leadership research.
And even he admitted it’s hard to nail down a leadership definition. In his words, “There are almost as many definitions of leadership as there are persons who have attempted to define the concept.”
Because it encompasses so much, it’s hard to pinpoint a neat and tidy definition of leadership.
But let’s try anyway, shall we?
Simply put, leadership is the ability to influence and guide followers or other members of an organization toward a common goal or purpose.
Of course, that’s a pretty dry definition, and there’s so much more we still need to understand.
What do leaders actually do? What are the characteristics of good leaders? What are the different styles of leadership? And most importantly, what does it take to become a great leader?
In this article, we’re going to dive into what leadership means so you can understand what makes a good leader and grow as a leader yourself. To answer the question “what is leadership” we’ll look at:
- Why leadership is important
- What leadership does NOT mean
- Different leadership styles
- What makes a good leader
- Characteristics of strong leaders
Why is leadership important?
We find leaders all around us. They play a critical role in our society, from business to sports to religion to politics to community-based organizations. There are so many roles a leader can function in. That’s one big reason why the definition of leadership is so hard to pin down.
But we do know this: leadership matters.
We’ve all been in a situation in which we were affected by a poor leader’s action. The cost is massive.
Important projects fail. Toxic cultures develop. Jobs are lost. People suffer. And in the worst scenarios, laws are broken and corruption seeps in.
But hopefully, you’ve also experienced the influence of a great leader. You’ve seen how they create momentum and inspire change. They coach people to achieve more than they thought possible. They lead teams whose work makes the world better.
Whether it’s for good or for bad, though, one thing is for certain:
Leaders influence people. They have a multiplier effect. Because their individual actions impact so many other people, everything they do ripples out.
That’s why leadership matters.
If we want successful businesses, functional governments, a healthy workforce, inspiring role models, and organizations that impact the world, we need great leadership.
Those are the leaders who can step up, influence others for the better, and make those big things happen.
And all that good stuff starts by understanding the definition of leadership.
What does it mean to be a leader?
To explore the definition of leadership, let’s begin by looking at the basic things leaders do. This isn’t an exhaustive list. But it’s a great starting place to understand the commonalities.
Leaders are decision makers. They think critically and strategically about the best course of action for their team or for themselves as an individual. They gather input, weigh pros and cons, and consider all the implications of each choice. Then, they adjust their decisions as needed, based on new information or circumstances that arise.
Leadership involves creating and articulating a vision of where a group is going. Leaders may not be skilled at or involved with the work needed to turn that vision into a reality. But they must evaluate their existing circumstances and set a course toward where they want to be.
Leaders organize, manage, and motivate others toward a goal. There are many ways to do this. They may use inspiration, delegation, management strategies, coercion, relationships, and more in order to create progress and reach their desired outcome.
What is leadership? Well, here’s what it isn’t.
If we want to define leadership, we have to start by checking our misconceptions at the door.
Because of our own lived experience with leaders, both good and bad, it’s all too easy to limit our leadership definition. We can dismiss some key aspects or overemphasize the importance of others.
So let’s take a look at three common misconceptions people have when they try to answer the question, what is leadership?
Leadership isn’t about your title or position
Often when we’re referring to the senior executives in an organization, we’ll call them the “company’s leadership.” But really, they’re just that – senior executives.
It isn’t the result of your position in the hierarchy of a company. It doesn’t automatically happen when you reach a certain pay grade.
If you only define leadership by the people at the top of an org chart, you’ll miss the fact that every organization needs leaders at all levels if they want to accomplish big things.
Some people do not hold any positions of authority or business titles, and yet they still demonstrate leadership through their actions. They set an example others want to follow, and they still rally people toward something different than the status quo.
Leadership isn’t about charisma.
Say the word “leader” and most people think of a take-charge, charismatic person who can command a room just by walking into it.
We often think of icons from history like General Patton or President Lincoln. Or charismatic modern figures like Oprah and Steve Jobs may come to mind.
While charisma can be an important tool in a leader’s toolbox, it’s not a requirement to lead.
And in some cases, people with charisma often find themselves in leadership roles without having the additional skills needed to lead well. You may have seen it in high school, when the most popular kid got elected to the student council but had no idea how to actually get anything done.
Fortunately, there isn’t one right or wrong personality trait that can define a leader. Not every leader needs extroverted, charismatic qualities. And not everyone has to dazzle the room or feel completely at ease in front of a crowd in order to lead others.
Leadership isn’t the same as management.
Sometimes, people ask “what is leadership” when what they really mean is “what is management.” They’re two separate things.
First, let’s define management. Management is the oversight of the tactical steps needed to complete work and achieve an objective.
Leaders often have to take on some management tasks, but good leaders understand that their strengths are different from those of good managers. Good managers excel in articulating the steps required to complete tasks. They hold people accountable for achieving their share of assigned work.
It’s a part of what leaders do, but it’s a far too limiting definition of leadership.
How is leadership defined?
Every leader has their own style and their own way of leading.
But if you’re asking the question, “What is leadership,” it can help to look at the various styles that people use to lead. Understanding those broad themes and commonalities gives us a fuller definition of leadership.
Most leaders draw from different leadership styles to find their own approach. They may need to lean more heavily on one style or another in order to weather a crisis, for example, or launch a new initiative.
While there are many, let’s take a closer look at the four most common leadership styles.
What is autocratic leadership?
Autocratic leadership, (also called authoritarian) involves the leader making all the decisions and expecting their followers to obey them.
It is a “top-down” approach to getting things done. Autocratic leaders may insist on close supervision and control for how work is done and by whom. They do not solicit feedback, ideas, or collaboration from those around them.
Advantages: This style can be effective in fast-paced or high-risk environments, where quick decisions are needed and there is no time for debate. It may also be necessary in times of crisis or in situations where team members are inexperienced.
Drawbacks: It can also be oppressive and can lead to a lack of engagement and creativity. By controlling all aspects of the work, team members can feel resentful, micromanaged, and unhappy.
Some examples of famous autocratic leaders are:
- Martha Stewart
- Napoleon Bonaparte
- Bill Belichick
What is democratic leadership?
Democratic leaders encourage input from the team and take different perspectives into account when making decisions. This style is also sometimes referred to as collaborative or participative.
Advantages: It is especially effective in situations where the team’s knowledge and experience can be used to make better decisions. It also allows for better engagement, encourages creativity, and leads to more buy-in from team members.
Leaders with this style tend to be thought of as fair, approachable, and open-minded. They build engaged teams and can often find creative solutions that others miss.
Drawbacks: It can slow down the decision-making process, which is a problem when markets or other factors require swift action. It can also backfire if the team is not fully equipped to make decisions.
Noteworthy people with a democratic leadership style include:
- Walt Disney
- Tim Cook
- Indra Nooyi
What is laissez-faire leadership?
Laissez-faire leaders provide minimal guidance to their employees and instead allow them to work independently.
It’s not a completely “hands off” approach, but it is based on the idea of allowing employees to work autonomously and make decisions with minimal guidance.
Advantages: The Laissez-faire style works in situations where the leader is confident in the employees’ ability to complete the task without much direction. It is most often seen on teams with high levels of expertise and knowledge. These teams tend to report high job satisfaction because they have the creative freedom they need and can control their work life.
Drawbacks: The chief drawback of this leadership style is a lack of direction and accountability. Without active guidance, employees may feel confused or overwhelmed. This can lead to decreased productivity as employees may not know what exactly to do or how to do it. It can also diminish product quality if there isn’t sufficient oversight.
Examples of well-known laissez-faire leaders are:
- Warren Buffett
- Queen Victoria
- Andrew Mellon
What is transformational leadership?
Transformational leadership focuses on inspiring the team and motivating them to reach the organization’s goals.
Leaders with a transformational style focus on connection and relationships between themselves and their team or followers. This connection is based on trust, respect, and shared values.
Advantages: Through this connection, transformational leaders can motivate and inspire followers to strive for a common goal.
They recognize the potential of their followers and work to develop their skills and abilities. As a result, their followers have a sense of purpose and meaning. They set – and often reach – challenging goals, provide feedback and support, give recognition, and offer opportunities for growth.
Transformational leaders create a safe and creative culture, where people can express ideas, work together, and learn from mistakes. This creates high satisfaction and helps develop new leaders at all levels of the organization.
Drawbacks: It can lead to burnout as team members and their leader constantly strive for one goal after the other. And because the team is built on trust, any fracturing of that trust can be particularly difficult.
Some well-known examples of leaders with a transformational leadership style are:
- Sam Walton
- John D. Rockefeller
- Condoleezza Rice
What makes a good leader?
So far, in order to answer the big question “what is leadership,” we’ve learned why leadership matters, what it entails, what it doesn’t entail, and what the various styles are.
That’s all helpful and important. But defining leadership broadly only gets us so far.
To dig deeper, we need to understand what makes a good leader. What specific things do great leaders do? What actions do they consistently take? How do they lead well?
So let’s look at the seven things all great leaders do, regardless of their personality or style.
Leaders must be able to communicate effectively with the people around them.
Communication is an indispensable club in any leader’s bag. They have to be able to articulate their vision and ideas so they’re clear and concise – whether that’s in person, in writing, or from a stage.
Great leaders say what they mean, and they say it with kindness and respect.
But they also realize that communication is more than just talking and writing. They listen, too. We’ve all met the person who just waits for someone to finish before saying what they were going to say anyway. That’s not listening! Great leaders consider what they’ve heard and then formulate their response.
Their communication skills also help them to give and receive feedback and resolve conflicts whenever they arise.
Make trustworthy decisions
Great leaders make sound, smart decisions. They don’t get it right all the time, of course, but they understand how important their choices are, and they strive to make good ones.
To do this, they start with a clear picture of their own reality. They seek out data and insight about what’s really happening around them instead of guessing, ignoring, or overinflating it.
Furthermore, they surround themselves with wise counsel – mentors, peers, and other team members – who aren’t afraid to speak up and voice a dissenting opinion.
Set an example
Every great leader sets an example and models the behavior they want to see from others.
Leaders must be able to show their team what it means to be a leader and how to lead. They must demonstrate the behavior they expect from their team, as well as the skills necessary to succeed in their role.
Leading by example is a powerful way to influence people. It’s often the most powerful way leaders earn the respect and trust of those around them.
This is probably the most important aspect in the life of any good leader.
Without people, you’re not a leader at all!
Great leaders intentionally build relationships with their team, stakeholders, and other key players. They take time to ask questions so they understand the needs, dreams, and ideas of others. They see people as just that – people – not merely customers or teammates or volunteers.
Ultimately, people only follow someone they trust. And trust can only thrive when we take the time to build relationships and know what makes people tick.
Great leaders inspire others to be their best selves. Leaders must be able to motivate and encourage their team, as well as challenge them to reach their full potential.
They also have to get people excited about moving toward a big goal. Where are they going? Why does it matter? They know how to motivate people so they’re willing to jump in and do what it takes to get there.
Every organization faces issues, problems, and even crisis situations. Good leaders step up in those moments.
They think critically and creatively to diagnose the root cause of problems and create effective solutions. They calmly rally everyone else to jump in and solve it, too. Most of all, they own the problem and they know that solving it is ultimately their responsibility.
Cast a vision
Great leaders know how to cast a vision. They create a compelling and inspiring picture of what the future could look like. They motivate those around them to work toward that common goal. The goal should be ambitious, but achievable, and should be based on the values and principles of the organization.
Then, they regularly communicate that vision in a way that’s simple and powerful, so people stay motivated and tuned into the mission they’re on.
What characteristics do great leaders have in common?
As we continue to dig into our big question – “What is leadership” – we can see that it’s defined by what people do. But there’s more to it than that.
To truly be a great leader, you must develop who you are.
Here’s the good news: there isn’t just one kind of personality who can lead well.
Great leaders can be introverted or extroverted. Creative or data-driven. High-achieving or laid back.
But there are certain characteristics that every great leader shares. These are qualities you need in order to lead well.
Some of them will no doubt come more naturally to you than others, depending on how you’re wired. But fortunately we can actively develop each of them and improve ourselves over time.
So let’s explore the seven personality characteristics that all great leaders have in common.
No definition of leadership would be complete without mentioning that great leaders are curious. They are students of the world around them and they are always asking questions. Why does this work the way that it does? How did you do that? What does this make possible?
They don’t know it all – and they know they don’t know it all.
They read books and listen to podcasts that help them grow and learn. They take courses and attend conferences. They look for lessons everywhere – from their team, their competition, other leaders, and even their own mistakes.
One thing is for sure: there are always setbacks in the life of a leader. Challenges come up. Plans fall apart. The stuff hits the fan, to paraphrase a bit.
That’s why leaders have to demonstrate perseverance. They must be determined to see their goals through, even in the face of adversity.
Leaders with perseverance inspire others around them to follow their example.
Their perseverance is contagious. That makes their teams more likely to work through issues, fight discouragement, and actually accomplish their goals instead of giving up on them.
Empathy is important because it allows leaders to understand and connect with their followers.
Empathy doesn’t have to mean that you’re holding someone’s hand and crying with them – although it can!
It simply means you can put yourself in the shoes of the people around you and see things from their point of view.
Leaders who develop empathy gain unique insight into the needs and aspirations of those who follow them. As a result, they naturally know how to motivate people.
They can also solve problems because they’ve taken the time to truly understand them at a human level.
Too often, leaders try to project some kind of idealized persona of someone in charge. They try to be someone they’re not. It backfires, because eventually, those around them can sense that something’s off.
Great leaders understand the power of being themselves.
They’ve learned to be comfortable in their own skin. They let their personality and quirks show through.
They’re vulnerable with those around them and they’re not afraid to admit when they don’t know the answer to something.
They’re consistent with their actions and words. They remain true to their core values and beliefs, and will be open to hearing and learning from the perspectives of others.
Willingness to take risks
Leaders often lead the charge to new and innovative places. But like everything that’s unknown, it’s also risky – and sometimes downright scary.
Good leaders are willing to take those risks. They do the hard work to understand the stakes. They surround themselves with good counsel. But ultimately, they have the courage to take that big leap of faith knowing they could fail.
Self aware leaders have done the hard work of understanding themselves and how they’re wired. They know how to use their strengths to benefit their organization. They’re aware of their blind spots and weaknesses and how to compensate for them.
Furthermore, they’re mindful of their own emotions and reactions to situations. This allows them to respond thoughtfully, especially when there is conflict and disagreement.
They’re great at “reading the room,” and they tend to boost the overall mood and positivity in whatever environment they’re in.
Great leaders show up ready to work hard. They put a high value on consistency, knowing that by showing up each day, they are getting better and moving forward.
Great leaders hold themselves to a higher standard and are often the ones finding ways to push their own limits.
They follow through on what they say they’re going to do, and they have the mental strength to stick to a task until it’s done.
What is leadership? Let’s summarize.
There’s a fantastic quote from John Quincy Adams.
He said, "If your actions inspire others to dream more, learn more, do more and become more, you are a leader."
That’s a terrific definition – and one that really encapsulates everything we’ve covered here.
Yes, we define leadership by our own actions and abilities. But all of those things are oriented toward others. It’s all about the people we serve.
For as complex as it can be to define leadership, it really does come down to serving people well and inspiring them to become more.
How do you define leadership? What makes a good leader – or a bad one? Leave a comment below and join the conversation!