THE Best Definition of Leadership…

| | General Leadership

…does not exist.

There is not one agreed upon definition in the world despite how much leadership has been studied and written about. As of today 316,641 results returned when searching Amazon for books on leadership. According to Warren Bennis in Leaders (1997) “academic analysis has given us more than 850 definitions of leadership”. I think it is fair to say that defining leadership will be studied and debated for a long time to come and it is likely we will never all agree on THE BEST definition.

Although that is the question I have been asked and challenged about the most.

A very good friend even wrote to me having spent a good deal of time reading what I wrote, thinking and searching the internet trying to help me do a better job of defining leadership. The definition I offered in one of my posts was “Translating vision into reality” by Warren Bennis. Yet she strongly believes that “Vision is not a catalyst for leadership.” Essentially the definition I had offered in her worldview was just wrong. Yet the most interesting thing of all was that everything she said to make her point completely validated what I was trying to say to begin with about leadership and leading.

Could a definition actually be getting in the way?

Perhaps offering a definition of leadership was a mistake. Not because I offered a “wrong” definition. Warren Bennis is well known as an expert in this field so it certainly wasn’t wrong. But because I tried to define something that perhaps cannot be adequately expressed with the simplicity and accuracy expected from the definition of anything.

So why do we keep trying to define it?

People expect you to be able to define the thing you are writing about or teaching. It is a valid expectation so naturally I have offered one. But definitions rarely help you understand and/or do the very thing you are trying to define. For example, I can define balance, but does that help me to achieve the balance necessary to ride a bicycle? In the case of leadership I have never seen a definition that has helped anyone instantly know how to lead.

What do we seek when we ask for a definition? I think we are seeking “the truth” about it. Yet trying to define leadership is a bit like trying to define beauty: it has many interpretations, although we know it when we see it. It is also said that beauty is in the eyes of the beholder. In fact, beauty does not look the same in all cultures. And perhaps neither does leadership. This points to the power of context in shaping our interpretations of “truth” about anything, including leadership.

What could be more useful than a definition?

The notion of a “random act of leadership” is my attempt to take leadership out of the realm of theory and develop a rich context for leading that can give EVERYONE access to leading in their day to day work and lives. My purpose is not to define leadership. It is to empower more people to see and seize opportunities to lead more readily and more often in everyday work and life. My focus is on identifying the actions of leading so we can do it more and make a bigger difference ourselves rather than waiting for “the” leaders to make things happen.

So now what?

I say we create a context for leadership that helps us see opportunities to lead – to take actions that will make a difference in the things that matter to us. So I invite you to start thinking about and sharing your context for leadership. The question I’ll use to start the inquiry is this:

What does leadership look like? I look forward to learning from your responses!


Enter A Comment

Jay   |   08 February 2009   |   Reply

I find that the leadership I have witnessed in life did not look like typical leadership- at least not in context. True leadership has flow, honesty, and above all integrity. I think we see fake leadership all the time- you recognize it in a person who is in your face with his/her opinions. This post is a perfect metaphor for being a leader. You are not telling us the definition because telling us that is not being a leader- that is a dictator. You are teaching us to fish if you will. Thank you Susan!

Lance   |   09 February 2009   |   Reply

Hi Susan,
What does leadership look like? I think it’s different depending upon the situation. So, it’s knowing when to show compassion, when to take some chances, and when to play it safe. Leadership is sometimes what we don’t see – all the decisions that have to be made within first – and those can sometimes be difficult choices.

If I think of nature, I’d say leadership looks like a mountain. Something that people are drawn to, something firmly in place, something that has peaks and valleys, majestic trees, and lots of undergrowth. And yet, at it’s peak is a view of the world like no other. For those who follow up the mountain paths…follow her to the top…the view is grand!

Henie   |   09 February 2009   |   Reply

Hi Susan!

I love this brain-stirring post! Thank you!

“A great leader is one who learns from his followers; a great leader is simply the light through a dark tunnel.” ~Henie~

brittney   |   05 June 2011   |   Reply

wow love your quote (: thats gonna be in my speech for rotc

prissyperfection   |   09 February 2009   |   Reply

Because I think that leadership is a way of being as well as doing, I’m not sure what it actually “Looks” like. What I have observed is that when real and effective leadership is present, the people involved (leaders and followers) are always energized, focused and optimistic, even when the challenges facing them appear insurmountable.

If we could bottle that, we might be able to get closer to a definition.

Great post, Susan…thoughtful and thought provoking.

tobeme   |   09 February 2009   |   Reply

Leadership looks like the ability to articulate a vision in a way that others desire to achieve that vision. Leadership is the sharing of ideas, the stimulus of creativity to achieve and go beyond that which is known.

Liara Covert   |   09 February 2009   |   Reply

One perspective is silence. The person who speaks loudest or the most is not the answer. The human being who evolves to distinguish his ideas from those of other men, learns to detach from self-created illusions. He frees the spiritual self from distractions of the physical world. Such a person queries why humans destroy what nature creates. He rediscovers the meaning of existence. He does not seek to impose his ideas but empowers others to make self-discoveries.

Kahlil Gibran said,
“I uprooted the strong and ancient tree of my soul.

I tore its roots from the clayin which it had sprouted and flourished. I tore its roots from its past, cutting off the memory of a thousand springs and a thousand autumns.

And I planted the tree of my soul once again in another place.

I planted it in a field far distant from the paths of time. I watched it by night, beside it, saying,’To watch by night brings us near to the stars.’

I watered it with my blood and my tears, saying, ‘There is a fragrance in blood, and in tears, a sweetness.’

When spring came, my soul blossomed once again.”

semazza   |   11 February 2009   |   Reply

@Jay I think what you are pointing to here is why some people do not want to be seen as leaders – their experience with people in positions of authority has cast a negative shadow on their interpretation of leadership.

@Lance Great point that leadership is sometimes what we don’t see. Perhaps not all acts of leadership will be seen by others but they will be felt by others. Love yoru mountain metaphor for leadership. too!

@Henie Well said!

@Gwyn That’s a great lens to consider distinguishing what leadership looks like – the success of a leader cannot be measured by their actions alone but rather by the impact their actions have on others.

@ToBeMe You point to an important context for leaders – possibility, one that I think actually distinguishes leadership from management.

@Liara This is what I take away from what you said – at this moment anyway! As always you make me really think. Leaders listen. Leaders empower others. They recognize they are not the center of the universe and see their role as one of helping others to discover and learn for themselves. I love the writings of Kahlil Gibran. Thank you for sharing that passage.

Thanks to all for your insightful comments.

Claudia   |   14 February 2009   |   Reply

Yes, leadership is difficult to define. Different situations require different types of skill sets from those who will facilitate work towards solving a problem, conflict, etc. Ultimately, regardless of the context, I think a leader inspires and empowers… generating more leadership.

Thanks, Susan for sharing your thoughts and creating a space for conversation.

strategicsenseinc   |   25 February 2009   |   Reply

Since reading your thought filled post above, I have had “definition” on my mind. Today I ran across a wonderful quote that spoke to me and made me think of you and this topic.

“Leadership is much more an art, a belief, a condition of the heart, than a set of things to do. The visible signs of artful leadership are expressed, ultimately, in its practice.”
by Max DePree

We experience leadership much more than we seem to be able to define it. And when we are lucky enough to be part of a great leadership experience we feel it, we tell people about the leader who made a difference in our lives but still, we struggle for a complete definition.

I believe every leader is different. Every experience is unique and every leader comes to the table with unique and amazing skills and talents that make them the exceptional leader only they can be. This cannot be categorized or defined in a box statement.

This is why the work you do is so integral to leadership, helping the leader draw out the best in their capabilities and sharing commonsense tips and examples for us to look at and apply to our own unique strenths and experiences.

I love your blog, Susan – what a gift to have found you – and on twitter, no less!

Susan Mazza   |   01 March 2009   |   Reply

@Claudia Thanks for joining the conversation! Great point that leaders by their very nature generate more leadership by inspiring and empowering others.

@strategicsense You point to something I think is so important – every leader is different. It is great to have role models and to learn from them but to be our most powerful version of ourselves we must discover our own unique expression of leadership.

Thank you for the wonderful acknowledgment. It means a lot, especially coming from you Patti! I am thrilled to have you to think with here 🙂

Jann Freed   |   04 May 2009   |   Reply

This is a great discussion on defining leadership. I had the opportunity about four years ago to attend a leadership workshop with Peter Senge at MIT. His definition is one that has stuck in my mind. He reminded us that inspiration and aspiration come from the root word “spire” or spirit or breath. He said that leaders are people who breathe life into people, projects, places. I LOVE this thought. Think of the opposite–someone who takes the life out of you or you feel as if you can’t breathe in their presence. Jann

pat gillett   |   22 June 2010   |   Reply

Bennis not argyris – I am losing my marbles

Sharon Eden   |   13 February 2011   |   Reply

I learned recently that humility means knowing your right size. Definitely an aspect of leadership in action in my book!

Jim Naleid   |   22 August 2012   |   Reply

Yes, you do know it when you see it…in action. Better yet, you’ve met another leader when you find yourself following… for all of the right reasons.

Susan Mazza   |   22 August 2012   |   Reply

Exactly! Well said Jim. Thanks for stopping by!

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