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Leadership: Definitions, Descriptions, Terminology

Leadership is a vast and important subject, yet full of confusing ideas and terminology, open to widely different interpretations. Definitions and descriptions also vary enormously, and examples can be extremely diverse too.

Examples of leading include:

  1. We lead when we manage a football team or teach a classroom of children. We lead our own children when we are parents, and when we organise anything. 
  2. We certainly lead when we manage projects or develop new business. We lead the moment we take the first supervisory responsibility at work, and maybe even before we assume official responsibility to do anything. 
  3. A vicar or preacher leads a congregation. 
  4. A writer or visionary may lead when he or she puts pen to paper and creates a book or poem, or article which inspires and moves others to new thoughts and actions. 
  5. A monarch and a president are both leaders. So is a local councillor, and so can be a community fund-raiser. A ruthless dictator is a leader. So was Mother Theresa, and so was Mahatma Gandhi.

We can find leadership in every sort of work and play, and in every sort of adventure and project, regardless of scale, and regardless of financial or official authority.

And so, given the many ways in which leadership operates, it is no surprise that it is so difficult to define and describe.

  • So what is leadership? Is it a technical model? A behaviour? Or is leadership more a matter of style or philosophy?

In fact, it's impossible to limit descriptions merely to being a technical model, a process, or a style or philosophy. It's all of these things, and much more besides.

This article aims:

  1. To help clarify what leadership is
  2. To offer a comprehensive summary of the main ways to understand and explain what leadership means 

As you will see, leadership can, and necessarily should, be approached from a variety of standpoints.

A helpful way to understand leadership is by exploring the thinking and theories using these three main conceptual viewpoints:

  1. Models
  2. Philosophies
  3. Styles

This three-category approach provides the structure for what follows in this course.

What Is Leadership?

Writers and experts in leadership use many different terms when trying to describe or categorise it - usually as a prefix or a suffix to the word leadership.

Consider how many different single or two-word terms are used with the word 'Leadership'.

Also, consider that many of these terms are rarely used with the word 'Management'.

This reflects the serious depth and variety of this terminology. The richness of terminology points to the huge variety of interpretations of leadership as a subject and further indicates its potency to operate in very many different ways and directions and at a fundamentally important level for people and society - even civilisations.

Models vs. Philosophies vs. Styles of Leadership

Of the many major terms which refer to concepts or theories about leadership, three terms together offer a useful structure by which to categorise and explore the wide range of theories within the subject. They are:

  1. Leadership Models
  2. Leadership Philosophies
  3. Leadership Styles

These three categories are different ways of looking at it. We could say instead: different aspects of leadership.

Different aspects can cause confusion when we try to understand what leadership is - especially if we use only one aspect to consider the subject.

  • For example, one person may be looking from a 'style' standpoint while another may be thinking about the 'philosophy'. The two people might hold similar or overlapping views, and yet because the standpoints are different (and usually, therefore, the terminology and reference points are different too), it can seem that there is conflict about what leadership is, when actually there may be close agreement.
    • Therefore, two people may disagree about something purely because they are approaching it from a different standpoint, when actually they may be seeing the same thing or two things which substantially overlap.

So, in addition to providing a helpful theory structure, using the three stated categories also helps to show that lots of thinking are overlapping and compatible when it might otherwise seem conflicting and wildly diverse.

Here are definitions of the three categories: models, philosophies and styles.

Please note that these definitions are specific to this leadership theory article. In other situations, these three words (models, philosophies, styles) may have other meanings.

Leadership Terminology Definitions

Definition of models

Definition of philosophies

Definition of styles

A leadership model contains theories or ideas on how to lead effectively and/or become a better leader.

Action-Centred Leadership is an example of a model.

A leadership philosophy contains values-based ideas of how a leader should be and act; and the sources of a leader's power.

Servant Leadership is an example of philosophy.

A leadership style is a classification or description of the main ways in which real-life leaders behave.

Transformational Leadership is an example of a style.

A leadership model is a structure which contains either processes or logic or a framework, which can be used or applied like a tool, in performing, understanding and teaching leadership.

A model is often also shown in some sort of diagram format. There may also be a sense of mechanics or engineering, with inter-related and linked moving parts. In some cases a model may contain measurable elements, sometimes entailing complex relative factors, and may also enable a reasonably consistent measurement or indication of standard, for example, effective versus ineffective leadership.

Any philosophy, and so too a leadership philosophy, is a way of thinking and behaving. It's a set of values and beliefs.

Philosophy is a series of reference points or a foundation upon which processes, decisions, actions, plans, etc., can be built, developed and applied. A leadership philosophy connects leadership with humanity and morality and ethics. This will at some point be influenced by beliefs about human nature and society, and perhaps religion, or universal truth and a sense of fairness and natural justice.

A leadership style is a more narrow and specific category than a model or a philosophy. In fact, many styles are contained within models as components.

A style is a distinct way of behaving. A leadership style tends to contain and is influenced strongly by the purpose or aim of the leadership. It may also be strongly influenced and perhaps determined by the personality of the leader and/or the personality or capability of the followers or group being led, and/or of the situation in which the leader is leading his or her people.

Leadership Terminology Differences

This explains the differences between the three categories/aspects of leadership which provide the structure of this article - models, philosophies and styles:


More Detail


Leadership models

Leadership models aim to teach us how to be successful or effective as leaders. They show us the keys to being effective. Models often contain different styles and enable 'switching' between them.

Models tend to contain or enable processes and measurable standards, and a 'switching' capability in response to different circumstances. Models may be supported by diagrams and graphs. A model may be influenced by or underpinned by a philosophy.

A leadership model is like a toolbox or a kit of parts.

Leadership philosophies

Leadership philosophies examine the sources of a leader's power and offer a value-laden view of the aims that they should pursue and how they should go about them. Leadership philosophies focus on what kind of leadership one should offer. It is usually more difficult to learn and apply than a model as it is dependent on values, not technique.

Leadership philosophies tend more than the other categories to be based on a life code or moral position. A philosophy - since it is expressed mainly through ideas and words, rather than processes and structured elements - is usually more difficult (than a model) to explain, transfer, teach, apply, or to develop into a measurable set of rules or instructions. A philosophy may underpin a model, and may also underpin a style. A philosophy also involves far more and deeper references to society, politics, civilization, etc., than models or styles.

A leadership philosophy is like a compass or code - underpinned by a set of beliefs.

Leadership styles

Leadership styles are essentially descriptive. They have observed classifications of leadership behaviours. They aim to describe the real-life forms of leadership we see around us. And unlike philosophies, they offer no guidance on the kind of leadership that should be offered - they merely reflect what is out there.

A leadership style is a narrow and specific behaviour compared to the other two categories. Leadership styles tend to be determined or strongly influenced by the leader's personality and their aims. A style is also strongly influenced by the purpose for which leadership is needed or has been established. A style may be suggested or dictated by a model, and to a lesser degree also by philosophy.

A leadership style is like a behaviour (good or not so good) and can be like a tool in the leadership models toolbox.

If you want to become a leader or improve yourself as such, using these three categories should help you understand better the different ideas and teachings.

Leadership ideas can be:

  • Models - learned/taught/applied in a very practical sense, or
  • Philosophies - about attitude and where power comes, or
  • Styles - interesting as typical leadership behaviours - helpful in understanding leadership generally, and to a lesser degree may be faceted within leadership models.

This three-way split is also a useful way to appreciate leadership theory from an academic angle since it provides order and classification for the many theories existing on the subject.


James Scouller Biography

We are grateful to James Scouller for his help, patience, and expert contribution in producing this leadership guide.

James Scouller is an expert coach and partner at The Scouller Partnership in the UK, which specialises in coaching leaders. He was chief executive of three international companies for eleven years before becoming a professional coach in 2004. He holds two postgraduate coaching qualifications and training in applied psychology at the Institute of Psychosynthesis in London.

James Scouller's book is called "The Three Levels of Leadership: How to Develop Your Leadership Presence, Know-how and Skill" which was published in May 2011.