What Is Leadership?


A spirited conversation about leadership came up in a workshop I was leading this week.  In essence, the discussion was whether someone can be a leader if their intent is bad.  It started with my preferred definition of leadership:

Leaders declare a future others commit to achieve.

It is a very simple and actionable definition.  And it doesn’t talk to the intent of the person in question.  There are many examples from history where a leader has caused massive harm.  They have done so by declaring a future that many people helped make a reality.  And yet, they are still leading according to my definition.

Leadership responsibility

This leads me to a key point, leaders have a responsibility to lead with the intention to do good, whatever the definition.  Leadership brings with it a deep sense of responsibility.  This is far from easy.  What do we define as good and bad?  The impact of actions can also change over time.  We may have to do harm in the short term for a much bigger long term benefit.  We are all also different, and have different views of what is good and what is bad.  Our political environment is very polarized with different views of what is good and bad.  At the end of the day we will attract followers who share our values of right and wrong.

Who can lead?

The definition doesn’t limit who can be a leader.  In some of my workshops, attendees have considered themselves too junior to lead.  Fortunately, anyone can step up and take a leadership role.  We need to declare a future that is bigger than ourselves and inspire others to follow.  It takes purpose and courage, and these qualities don’t come with position.  Witness the high school students who are leading a national movement about gun control.

As I reflect on this topic, I realize there is a lot more to the conversation than we covered in the workshop. It is nice when everyone nods their head and agrees with my preferred definition.  At the same time, there is so much more for us all to understand about leadership and how we define it.  There are many, many definitions of leadership.  None of them are right or wrong, they simply appeal to different people.  But it is important we each have a definition of leadership and know why it speaks to us.

What is your definition of leadership, and what makes it relevant and special for you?