What is leadership?  

There are many definitions of leadership. In fact, there are so many that one is tempted to conclude it means everything and it means nothing. We might be left without an answer, as was General Norman Schwarzkopf, Jr. when a friend of mine asked him what leadership was. After thinking about it for a minute, he said, “I don’t know what it is but I know it when I see it.” It may be that leadership is like a many-sided puzzle. As we turn it over and around we see something new and important.  We begin by reviewing six relatively current definitions and four ‘leadership without’ observations.

Leadership is relationship. “Leadership is a relationship between those who aspire to lead and those who choose to follow.” James M. Kouzes and Barry Z. Posner,The truth about leadership. (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2010), 16.

Leadership is influence. “The true measure of leadership is influence: nothing more, nothing less.” John Maxwell, The 21 irrefutable laws of leadership. Rev ed. (Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 2007) 11.

Leadership is a process. “Leadership is the process of influencing others to understand and agree about what needs to be done and how to do it, and the process of facilitating individual and collective efforts to accomplish shared objectives.” Gary A. Yukl, Leadership in organizations, 6th ed. (Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson-Prentice Hall, 2006), 8.

Leadership is community building. “Leadership is the capacity to initiate a future distinct from the past . . . It can only be achieved through high engagement. We can say then that the essence of leadership is about convening, valuing relatedness, and decentralizing its own role . . . Leadership in these terms becomes community builder.” Peter Block, “Reconstructing our idea of leadership.” Peter_Block_Reconstructing Our_Idea_of_Leadership_0508.pdf. Accessed 12 August 2012.

Leadership is about getting results. “Make no mistake: leadership is about getting results. Great leadership has the potential to excite people to extraordinary levels of achievement. But it is not only about performance; it is also about meaning . . . Leaders at all levels make a difference to performance. They do so because they make performance meaningful.” Robert Goffee and Gareth Jones, Why should anyone be led by you? (Boston: Harvard Business School Press, 2006), 2.

Leadership is meaning making. “Leaders are meaning makers: they set direction that others aspire to; they help others participate in doing good work and good works; they communicate ideas and invest in practice that shape how people think, act, and feel. As organizations become an increasing part of the individual’s sense of identity and purpose, leaders play an increasing role in helping people shape the meaning of their lives.” David Ulrich and Wendy Ulrich, The why of work. (New York: McGraw Hill, 2010), xiv.

Leadership can even be without:

Without followers. “As a human being, you are already hardwired to be a leader. But in this technological day and age, your words and actions can literally reverberate throughout the entire world and its nearly seven billion inhabitants with an unabashed magnitude that was never before possible! . . . In this extremely overlapping and interconnected world, we are, in essence, instant leaders.”
Dave Ursillo, Lead without followers. (Lexington, KY: CreateSpace, 2011) 88, 146.

Without leaders. “Leadership is a performance, an inventive display, and we can summarize this by suggesting that successful leadership depends upon the extent to which leaders ‘perform’ the words and deeds conventionally associated with leaders – but it also requires followers to believe in the performance . . . What is the end of leadership? I do not imply by this that we cannot do without leadership but we probably could do without leaders . . . [In the end we can argue that] the trick of leadership . . . is to develop followers who privately resolve the problems leaders have caused or cannot resolve, but publicly deny their intervention.” Keith Grint, The arts of leadership. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000), 419.

Without titles. “We can continue the de-motivating spiral of self-indulgent, unaligned leaders, or we can decide to create tomorrow’s workplaces through a new kind of leadership. It’s the kind that doesn’t come with a title. It’s not determined by rank, responsibilities, or position. No one needs to appoint you, promote you, or nominate you. You decide. I call it titleless leadership.” Nan Russell, The titleless leader: How to get things done when you are not in charge. (Pompton Plains, NJ: Career Press, 2012), 13.

Without credit. “The highest type of ruler is one of whose existence the people are barely aware. Next comes one whom they love and praise. Next comes one whom they fear. Next comes one whom they despise and defy. When you are lacking in faith, Others will be unfaithful to you. The Sage is self-effacing and scanty of words. When his task is accomplished and things have been completed, All the people say, ‘We ourselves have achieved it!’” Lao Tzu, Tao Teh Ching, John C. H. Wu, trans. (Berkeley, CA: Shambhala Publications, 2006), 35.


David S Penner, PhD.  Loma Linda University