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What is Leadership? The Ultimate Guide

Have you ever truely trusted a boss or a colleague? Ever believed in their ideas and plan like they are your own?

Ever gone that extra mile, learnt that little bit more, felt a sense of meaning?

Good leadership creates the environment for all these things and more – but nobody seems to be able to get agreement on a common definition.

In fact, there are thousands of definitions. In 1978, Ralph Melvin Stogdill wrote: “There are almost as many definitions of leadership as there are persons who have attempted to define the concept".

But why is it so hard to agree a definition, is it even helpful to have one, and given that the pandemic has transformed the way we work, communicate and lead, is it time to add one more definition to the pile? (Spoiler alert: yes, it is. Read on.)

Firstly, some basics…

I don’t want to bore you, but the difference between management and leadership is a good starting point.

The Chartered Institute of Management are articulate on this matter:

“…management is about the day-to-day running of a function and getting the right people in the right place, with a focus upon implementation… leadership is about creating a vision for that function and gaining people's commitment by providing strategic direction”

That all makes sense, and I believe that distinction is widely understood. There is, however, always an aura around leadership – like it’s somehow more important than management. In fact, management and leadership are equally important. Leaders that don’t manage don’t know what’s going on to make the right decisions, and managers that don’t lead are uninspiring and frankly make people’s lives around them dull, rather than meaningful.

Management is easier to understand as a concept. Leadership, on the other hand, has an intangibleness that means junior to midweight colleagues are cautious, if not scared, to call themselves a leader or even talk about leadership through fear of imposing on an obscure world, dominated in majority by older people or those with fancy job titles.

As an MBA leadership lecturer, leadership tutor and a trainer of 1,000s of leaders through my company Hack Yourself, I get asked this a lot: What’s the definition of leadership?

So, it’s time to unpick…

What’s the best definition so far?

There’s not a leader on this planet that would give the same answer as another leader when asked to describe what leadership is.

I’ve spent months digging out the best examples, to hopefully lead us to a more contemporary solution. So let’s take a look at the front runners…

The comprehensive ones Firstly, a couple of the best ones that feel wholesome:

“The definition of leadership is to influence, inspire and help others become their best selves, building their skills and achieving goals along the way” Tony Robins, author and speaker

“Leadership is helping people succeed, inspiring and uniting people behind a common purpose and then being accountable” Paul Polman, former CEO, Unilever

The emotional ones Then there are some definitions that don’t really tell us much, but that leave us with the right kind of feeling about leadership: " ...leadership is like the Abominable Snowman, whose footprints are everywhere but who is nowhere to be seen" Bennis & Nanus: 'Leaders: Strategies for Taking Charge' (1997)

"A leader is a dealer in hope" Napoleon Bonaparte, French soldier, statesman, revolutionary

Based on the examples so far, perhaps multiple definitions are useful? Leadership is not a ‘one-size-fits-all’, it’s about finding your unique style and approach. Could a menu the size of the Argos catalogue be useful to ignite something different in each of us? Mmm, let’s continue…

The focused ones Then there are the ones that over-emphasise certain qualities:

"Be willing to make decisions. That's the most important quality in a good leader." General George S. Patton Jr, United States Army

"The function of leadership is to produce more leaders, not more followers" Ralph Nadar, political activist, author, lecturer, and attorney

“Leadership is translating vision into reality” Warren Bennis, scholar, organisational consultant and author

"Leadership is influence - nothing more, nothing less" John Maxwell, author, speaker, and pastor

Ps. I’m doing my best to get the most accurate sources for these quotes. It does seem, however, that some leadership gurus aren’t afraid to borrow a good soundbite.

The colourful/dramatic ones

The above examples are nice, but come on, we need a little more insight into what leadership actually is. So, let’s explore a more colourful option:

"Leadership is the art of mobilizing others to want to struggle for shared aspirations” Kouzes, J.M. & Posner, B.Z. ‘The Leadership Challenge’ (1995)

Should it be a ‘struggle’? I’m not sure people would work for a leader who sets out to facilitate a good old struggle every Monday morning #TheStruggleIsReal

The poetic ones

Then there are the poetic ones. That either rhyme or chime in such a way that mean they must be true:

“A leader is one who knows the way, goes the way and shows the way”

John Maxwell, author, speaker, and pastor

“Leadership is not about the next election, it’s about the next generation”

Simon Sinek, author and inspirational speaker


“If you inspire others to dream more, learn more, do more, and become more, you are a leader”

John Quincy Adams, statesman, diplomat, lawyer, and diarist who served as the sixth president of the United States


“Leadership is practiced not so much in words as in attitude and in action” Harold S. Geneen, businessman


Despite the poetic nature of these definitions, they will leave many feeling a bit unsure about what this leadership malarkey is actually all about.


The computer-generated one


I asked the much-hyped ChatGPT (artificial intelligence chatbot developed by OpenAI) to describe leadership. Its response was very logical, and likely a result of the most popular definitions on the web: “Leadership is the ability to guide and motivate a group of people towards a common goal or vision. A leader is someone who sets the direction for a group and inspires others to follow them" ChatGPT


I don’t know if I want to laugh or cry that an artificial intelligence chatbot is making more sense than some of the popularised options above.


The best one Every thousand or so definitions you read (are you picking up on a little sarcasm yet?), you come across one that stops you in your tracks. Like this:

“Leadership is about articulating visions, embodying values, and creating the environment within which things can be accomplished” Richards and Engle, authors

Ooh, now we are talking.

Let’s highlight the four parts of that definition:

1. Vision

2. Values

3. Creating the environment

4. Ensuring accomplishment

I don’t think many people could argue with those. But, in the evolving and post-peak-COVID world, perhaps it’s lacking some emphasis on the more modern leadership attributes.

Through Hack Yourself, the company I founded in 2017 to pursue what’s changing in the world of work and build modern leaders and high performing teams, we are currently focusing on the following, all of which could be in the running to form part of the illustrious new definitions:

  • Leading a more sustainable output, that positively impacts the world around us. This is becoming, and WILL be, a top priority for leaders as boards and investors stipulate ESG (Environmental, Social and Governance) commitments

  • Understanding and activating equality, diversity, and inclusion

  • Understanding how to manage the health and wellbeing of your people, AND drive results

  • Leading yourself (values, principles, purpose etc.) before leading others

  • Empowerment – hands off, becoming the safety net, with complete clarity of what needs to be done

  • Fostering belonging, in a hybrid way of working

  • Trust (everything relies on this)

  • Simplicity of strategy, structure, and processes

  • The ability to reset plans and ways of working after crises or individual life events

The above aren’t fads. These are things modern leaders will care about, shout about and take action on.

The new definition

If you’ve just scrolled all the way down here to read the answer, shame on you my friend. Shame. On. You.

I’m going to use Richards and Engle’s definition (see section above) as the foundation, but to get to a concise improvement I need to prioritise the more modern elements that I’ve listed above.

I’ve chosen:

  1. Leading yourself (this gives better outputs such as authenticity, empathy, and builds trust – qualities that are hugely in demand)

  2. Creating a positive impact on the people and environment around you (in fairness, Richards and Engle’s quote is from the 80s, when sustainability, climate change and colleagues’ mental health were not on the agenda as much)

So, here it is: Leadership is about articulating visions, embodying values, and creating the environment within which things can be accomplished to positively impact yourself, your colleagues and the world around you.

It's a slight mouthful, but I prefer we get to a useful place than just a catchy one.

Summary

All the example definitions above are useful if they help people step back, think about how they are approaching work, the impact they have on others and the role they play to help people achieve more than they would if they were just being ‘managed’ and not led.

For me, however, I want something that just highlights a few of the more contemporary necessities in a leader, because we all want to work for people that value us, value our growth and value the impact we have on the people and environment around us. Please share any ideas or improvements. For now, I hope it’s moved the conversation on.


What to learn more?

My company, Hack Yourself, is here to shake up the leadership development market. We were fed up with being fed the same old leadership courses when the world we live in has changed so much, so we’ve taken the timeless theories and approaches, crashed them together with more modern leadership competencies, and have now trained 1,000s of emerging and senior leaders, helping them to lead differently. We run courses for individuals and teams, whether that’s a full day course, awayday session or just a short talk in your offices or at an event.

We can help your people lead the way.


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