Skip to main content

How is Leadership Defined?

There are many definitions of leadership. Many lines have been written attempting to capture the essence in just a few words.

The Oxford English Dictionary definition of leadership is simply:

  • "The action of leading a group of people or an organisation, or the ability to do this ."

We need now to define 'lead' in this context, which is more helpful with regards to appreciating the breadth and depth of the word 'leadership'. Here are the most relevant points from the dictionary:

  • Be in charge or command
  • Organise and direct
  • Set a process in motion
  • Be a reason or motive for (others to act, change, etc.)

Note that only the first point strongly implies that leadership depends on a single leader, and even this point may easily be interpreted to mean that it can be achieved by delegated responsibility, even across a number of levels and on a vast scale.

Also consider that the last two points do not restrict leadership to the leading of an organised group of people such as a business or other provider of services/products, etc. The last two points broaden the scope to anyone or any collective of people, who inspire or motivate other people to act in some way towards some sort of aim or task or outcome.

To do this well at any level is not simple, just as finding a definition is not simple either.

Some writers understandably make fun of poor leadership, because when done poorly it is evident, especially at the highest levels of responsibility.

  • A leadership definition is obviously quite limited because it is only a few words or a couple of sentences.
  • Some definitions of leadership convey a particular essence very well, but that is all a single definition can represent - just an essence.
  • Any single definition of leadership can only attempt to convey the essence or most important quality of leadership from a particular standpoint or point of view.

A standpoint of leadership tends to dictate the definition.

For example:

  • An ethical standpoint will produce a definition focused on ethics
  • A results standpoint will produce a definition focused on results or achieving an end result
  • A communications and motivational standpoint will produce a definition focused on communication with and motivating followers
  • And so on

Therefore when we try to understand leadership we should avoid placing too much reliance on a single definition, or even several definitions, especially when we try to explain it to others.

Definitions do not explain leadership - definitions can at best merely convey the essence of leadership from a particular point of view.

To understand, explain, and apply leadership, we must be able to describe it in greater depth.

What is Leadership?

It is very hard to define the meaning of leadership, but there are certain traits that we can attribute to good leaders: 

  • They all inspire a vision amongst their followers and set a direction for performance that they expect to be followed. 
  • Their main skill is making people around them work hard, not because they are told to, but because they want to. 
  • They are often described as dynamic and inspirational and set tasks that are fun, yet challenging. 
  • Motivation is a key skill required to be a good leader, encouraging others to work hard because they want to work hard for their leader.

Transformational leadership is often cited as the closest model to what we call 'traditional' leadership. This model tells us that to be effective you must have the following attributes:

1. Creates an Inspiring Vision For the Future

  • Creating a vision is important as it acts as an end goal to direct and motivate your team members. 
  • This gives direction to all actions of your team members and can also act as a point of reference after the task is complete. 
  • The vision created will be based on likely changes in the business environment, competitors' movements and the future behaviours of consumers. 
  • The key skills of a leader here are to first correctly predict a likely future scenario and then to convince their team that reaching it will benefit everyone.

2. Motivates and Inspires People to Engage With that Vision

  • Creating a vision is not enough to generate hard work and passion, the vision must inspire and motivate employees to work hard. 
  • If the vision is likely to drive to major changes to established processes and take a long time to reach it is likely, at some point during the process, that support for it will decrease. 
  • For this reason, it is an important task for leaders to consistently build and maintain support for the vision. 
  • One way of doing this is to emphasise that the vision will bring about positive changes for the organisation, and these changes will have positive implications for the employees themselves, such as financial rewards. 
  • Employees will be motivated by the thought of the organisation progressing, but also by their potential personal gains.

3.  Is Responsible for Their Team's Delivery of that Vision

  • This area of leadership has many crossovers with the skill of management. 
  • Delivering the vision involves setting out a plan of action, delegating tasks, monitoring and rewarding progress throughout the process and assessing the success when the goal is reached.

Coaches and Mentors their Team members to Maximise Their Individual Effectiveness and the Effectiveness of Their Team

  • It is unlikely a leader will already have a team of high-performing individuals that complement each other to create the most effective team possible. 
  • Therefore, it is important they develop their team members' skills and build an effective team. This may be done by delegating responsibility, transferring skills or formal training. 
  • Regardless of the stage of the process, continuous development of individuals and the team is key to maintaining success. 
  • Developing leadership potential within your team is crucial for the future success of the organisation.

Leadership is not as effective unless it is also supported by good management, as we will discuss throughout this course. Find out more about what Forbes believes it is to be a leader here.

Why is Good Leadership Important?

  1. Good leadership is often cited as the key reason for organisational success. 
  2. A leader who inspires their workforce to consistently perform at the highest level is likely to see success resonate throughout the organisation. 
  3. Strong leadership also has the power to develop more leaders. This can be very effective as it means new leaders are developed internally, rather than hired externally. It also ensures that they understand the values and processes within the company. 
  4. Good leadership also instils a culture within the company where everyone is willing to work hard for each other. This resonates throughout the whole organisation and is an excellent way of ensuring performance remains high.

Regardless of your organisation's talent, model or assets, without strong leadership performance can remain low

  • Strong leadership ties these factors together to create a high-performance organisation.
  •  An organisation can theoretically have the potential for success, but only leadership can put this potential into action and deliver tangible results.
  •  Leaders can be particularly important in times of change or weak performance. Here, they have the skills to increase motivation and morale and guide the organisation through troubled times.

What can you Learn about Leadership?

Many people believe that good leader are born with those attributes and the skills they have cannot be taught to others. This is simply not true, learning about theories and models, face-to-face training and experience can be combined to develop a strong leader, regardless of their natural abilities. 

In fact, even the greatest are constantly learning and are likely to have learnt most of their skills from someone else. The important thing is to never believe you have learnt all there is to know and to keep developing skills and learning from new experiences.

  • Building this set of skills and becoming an effective leader can make you a very valuable asset to any organisation and is likely to see you financially rewarded for the skills you develop. 
  • There is no 'one size fits all' style and no two leaders are the same. Therefore, as you develop your own techniques you should not worry that it is not straight out of the textbook. 
Leadership models and styles are simply guidelines for how you should think about developing your leadership skill-set.


James Scouller Biography

We are grateful to James Scouller for his help, patience, and expert contribution to 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.