Does it matter how we define leadership?

Does it Matter How We Define Leadership? - People Development Network
Does it Matter How We Define Leadership? - People Development Network
Morag Barrett
Morag Barrett is sought out speaker and the author of the bestselling book "Cultivate: The Power of Winning Relationships." She is also the founder and CEO of, an international HR consulting and leadership development company. Morag’s experience ranges from senior executive coaching to developing leaders and teams across Europe, America and Asia. SkyeTeam works with clients in a range of industries including: Healthcare, Telecoms, Mining, Manufacturing, Engineering, and Technology. She's a regular contributor to the American Management Association, and
Morag Barrett


I help organizations, teams & individuals get unstuck | leadership development | Keynote Speaker | Author 'Cultivate. The Power of Winning Relationships'
RT @MikeHaberman: The latest The Mike Haberman Daily! Thanks to @KristinVThomas @SkyeMorag @joeDmarti #leadership #… - 6 hours ago
Morag Barrett
Morag Barrett

How do you define leadership?

We will share different leadership models to spark debate and invariably a lively conversation ensues. The best models in any discipline have two characteristics: salience and brevity. Salience means that they explain the concepts as fully as they need to. Brevity means that they’re expressed in a straightforward fashion. They use no more words than are absolutely necessary, nor are they excessively complicated. In an ideal world, this tension is kept in a perfect balance.

Given that we don’t live in an ideal world, however, you won’t be surprised to learn that all models, including leadership ones, struggle to find this balance. They suffer from the same extremes as those in other disciplines. Some try to allow for every eventuality – a practical impossibility, while others opt for economy by oversimplifying the problem.

While these models can be beneficial for helping us to understand some of the different characteristics of leadership, none of them can be both comprehensive and succinct. The “full story” would require thousands of books to explain everything, and it would take several lifetimes to read them. Come to think of it, the books are there already and more are being written every day. It’s the longevity that’s lacking. Yet, even if you could read them, you would need to do so instantaneously, since situations can change almost as quickly.

Given the impossibility of absorbing, comprehending, integrating, processing, and finally applying all that we know about leadership in the briefest of moments, why do scholars continue to pursue this Holy Grail? It’s because leaders keep asking for it. They don’t have time to do the research or read the books; and most lack the patience to wade through the tens of thousands of academic studies that have been done on the subject. They want actionable steps they can take right now even though the scope of the topic is big enough to occupy the working lives of many, many university professors.

Does that mean that we give up? Not at all. What it does mean, however, is that we need to make sure that we understand the problem before we try to find a solution.

Leadership Definitions

Let’s consider three definitions leadership and see what we can learn from them.

Warren Bennis, who perhaps had more to say about leadership than anyone else, put it like this: Leadership is “the capacity to translate vision into reality.” By itself, that tells us very little. We know from other things that he has said, however, that he means the vision of the leader. To put it another way, leadership is found in the ability of the leader to make his or her vision a reality.

John Maxwell, John Maxwell, author, pastor, and speaker says that “a leader is one who knows the way, goes the way, and shows the way.” This definition reveals one of the problems found in leadership definitions: What is the way? As we’ve just seen from Bennis’ definition, it’s the leader’s way; but you know people who attempt to show their own way by going their own way, but who still have no followers. This is a crucial point. In any group of people, how do you distinguish between those who are leading and those who aren’t? It is solely on the basis of who is following whom.

Bill Bradley, Bill Bradley, former US Senator and member of the NBA Hall of Fame, says that leadership “means getting people to think, believe, see, and do what they might not have without you.”

This is a helpful definition in many respects.

According to Bradley, leadership first of all gets people to think. This seems to fly in the face of what many believe leadership to be. The received wisdom tends to be that followers leave the thinking to someone else; but for Bradley, meaningful consideration of what you’re asking people to do compared with what they could do on their own is paramount. Just imagine how much benefit an organization could reap by adopting such an approach from the outset.

The second thing is that followers need to believe in is what they’ve been asked to do. Belief follows naturally from thoughts. If you ponder on an idea for long enough, then you will come to believe that certain things are true, while others are not. What you do will always be based on what you believe. You may be able to fake it for a little while, but you won’t be able to hold the inner tension in check indefinitely. One or the other will change. Either your actions will conform to your true beliefs, or your beliefs will change so that they are consistent with your actions. The same thing holds true for those you seek to lead. Either they will do what you ask because they share your beliefs, or they will change their beliefs so that they can act in a manner that is pleasing to you without violating their conscience.

Seeing is the third element. It’s difficult to do anything without being able to see in the mind’s eye what that looks like. This leads us into the area of learning styles. Some people learn best by reading; others by listening; others by watching; and others by doing. But one way or the other, everyone has to comprehend what you want in a manner that makes sense to them. We call that seeing.

The last thing, according to Bradley, is that leaders are able to get others to do what those people could not do on their own. Notice the emphasis. Leading is about enabling others to achieve more personally. It’s not limited to what they can do for the organization as a whole. The whole is greater than the sum of its parts, but it begins with the parts; not the whole.

Don’t you find that perspective particularly interesting?

What does this mean for you?

It means that if you’re going to lead your organization successfully, then you have to begin with those you seek to lead. You have to show them what they will be able to achieve as a result of following you.

Your vision has to become their vision. You can’t create some vague mission statement, nail it to the wall of every cubicle, and then march off into the sunset all the while expecting that everyone will be fully behind you. You have to bring them along.

Set aside some quiet time to consider how you can encourage your employees to follow you. Then find out what they’d like to achieve and create a plan together to make it happen.