Defining what leadership constitutes is one of the most frustratingly difficult subjects to articulate. This is because leadership is a role which differs depending on the perspective of the definer. Thus there are many ways to express the components or description of the definition of leadership. Warwick University has published twenty academic views which attempt the difficult task of defining leadership. While Lolly Daskal showcases 100 answers to the question “What is leadership?”
There are almost as many different definitions of leadership as there are persons who have attempted to define the concept.
What is the definition of leadership?
It is very clear leadership is like beauty, in the eye of the beholder. Defining leadership includes influencing followers by virtue of using skills, characteristics behaviours, influences and teamwork/team building. The simplest definition of leadership is that it is
The art of motivating a group of people to act towards achieving a common goal.
From my own experience, the following are the chief descriptors which spring to mind when defining leadership.
- Inspiring, directing others to reach a destination or goal
- Leading others to achieve results and levels of performance
- Creating an environment which helps followers to be successful
- Facilitating the possibilities of their followers being the best they can
- Empowering others to reach their own goals
- Building networks and relationships, overcoming personal differences
Defining Leadership using universal wisdom
When I first began writing and coaching around leadership, it dawned on me that my journey which had required me to learn through considerable challenges had informed a knowing about defining leadership. This knowledge gave me inner confidence which meant I was not daunted by many of the leadership challenges myself and others faced. When I began articulating what defined leadership for me, many others immediately recognised the principles. I realised this was because my own leadership model was based on universal wisdom. This means on a level, within everyone, they recognise the truth in those principles. So my model was and is a means of defining leadership.
My leadership model is based on four states
Being connected to your higher self
When a leader is connected to their higher self, it enables them to get out of their own way. This creates the condition to practice real discernment. Discernment is the state when you are making decisions from your higher self. Your ego is out of the way and therefore you can deal with challenges from a wider, balanced and enlightened point of view.
Difference always needs to be respected and honoured. It’s also true what a leader focuses on will grow and flourish. To that end concentrating on our commonalities is essential. Focusing on those factors we have in common will enable our shared experience to grow. The fact is quantum science is showing we are all connected and we have more in common than not. When a leader comes from that premise then they are inspired and inspiring.
Leaders who are self-aware understand learning is a life long endeavour. They understand they need to develop their visionary, thinking and emotional intelligence skills. They appreciate that the information which they make their decisions with is ever expanding both internally and externally. Leaders who are self-aware understand their impact on others and so reflection is innate.
Great leaders touch the inner spirit of their followers and team and so they are inspiring. They understand how to create an environment which brings out the best in others. They understand the laws of creation from within and so they foster enthusiasm, motivation and commitment.
Defining leadership and the leadership role
One of the reasons it’s so difficult to describe the definition of leadership is that there are numerous levels of leadership. The British Councils Report, Global Definitions of Leadership and Theories of Leadership, discusses leadership roles in a global context as well as a political context. The report looks at many different aspects involved in defining leadership and one of those aspects is about identifying leadership roles.
Leadership roles matter because the scope and breadth of such roles mean there are significant differences in what the definition of leadership is depending on each situation. There is a vast difference between the leadership requirements of the President of the USA, the leader of the free world, and the leader of a small business. And so there are subtle differences in the leadership role depending on at which level the leader is operating on. Some of the more common roles are:
Leading an institution or a cause which encompasses people and societies across the world. This role has to embrace a myriad of cultures with a purpose and mission which has world-wide meaning.
As above but confined to a continent, country or specific geographical area where cultures may be varied and purpose and mission are specific to that region.
A leader of a cause
This leaders purpose and mission unite people in a common cause. It might be to improve lives or create transformational change and it can be linked to activism. This leader is usually seeking change for the good of others.
Leading on a manifesto which sets out a number of promises made to the electorate. Steering voters and affiliates to a set of policies, laws and infrastructures which serve to govern and make decisions about how we live our lives.
Corporate or business leadership
Leading an organisation which provides a service or product to consumers or customers. Their purpose or mission is specific to their company offer to customers. These roles both lead on outputs as well as providing people with leadership for their employees.
What are the main functions of leadership?
The main functions of leadership are centred around change or transformation. While the function of some leaders might be to provide the components to sustain products or services or maintain a way of living over a longer period. Whatever the main steer there are many functions leadership fulfil, whether directly or indirectly. These functions provide another aspect in our quest to draw out a definition of leadership. Leaders may provide or source the expertise to carry out these functions. Some of the most common functions of leadership are:
Functions of leadership
- Creating a strong brand or identity which creates real purpose and meaning.
- Empowering and demonstrating the trust of individuals and teams.
- Developing strategies and creating necessary alignment across teams and resources.
- Creating change or transformation understanding how to take their followers or teams on that journey.
- Developing a positive “can do” attitude, using enhanced emotional and intellectual intelligence to overcome hurdles and barriers to results.
- Financial resourcing and management – making sure sufficient funds are available to achieve results.
- People-centred functions including engagement with followers or employees – making sure the right people are involved
- Resourcing making sure there is the right equipment or system support to help achieve results or outcomes. This can also include sourcing the right training or learning for teams and individuals.
- Communicating to ensure engagement and a joined-up approach is achieved whether to followers or employees, this could include marketing or PR. Most crucially it is about creating a historical, present and future narrative or in other words being an accomplished storyteller.
- Achieving outcomes might include developing and delivering products and services. Outcomes may be around global, local or business change.
- Building relationships not only with followers and employees but also with key stakeholders and sponsors. Developing trust and collaborative working
What does leadership mean to you?
We are all unique and no matter what the topic or entity we cannot help but see things differently. That’s not to say we don’t see commonalities but we may never completely be in agreement. Likewise with the topic of leadership. Every person has a different perspective when defining leadership. This is largely down to our different personality type, the beliefs we have adopted and the myriad of our experiences. Because of where we are in our lives we all have different needs. We all have a different combination of what works well for us in our relationships with others. All these differences mean we each have a unique perception of what constitutes leadership.
I once took a class where the students considered the challenges leaders of today faced and described what they thought was needed from leaders both in business and world leadership to navigate these challenges. The definition of leadership for those students included value-based leadership, people-centred leadership and collective consciousness awareness. There was nothing about profits, or results or business outcomes. That’s not to say those elements can’t be important in the right situation, just not the main priorities.
Defining leadership from others
In January 2017 NHS Wales asked their leaders what leadership meant for them. A sample of their replies make interesting reading here:
- Supporting and enabling my team to be the best they can be
- Collegiate, building consensus
- Service, giving your best and living out your values. Authentic, open humble and willing to learn
- Doing the right thing in the face of challenge
- creating a common sense of purpose and an environment within which to thrive
- Teamwork and leadership go hand in hand
- Leadership is a means to an end whereby ordinary people are being enabled to achieve extraordinary results
- a good decision made in a position of leadership can make more of a positive impact on more patients
- Leadership is all about purpose and passion, it’s an activity, not a person
- Great leadership is when you influence someone to be the very best they can be
- making connections and leveraging interdependencies; promoting and valuing diversity
- It is something about the links that people in a group form, allied to the personalities of the individuals in the group.
The ABC of leadership
This lengthy article started off in our LinkedIn group when we asked members what leadership meant for them. With over 200 entries laid out in alphabetical order, it’s a comprehensive download of what leadership means from a host of random people from around the world.
How to define your leadership purpose
If you are a leader defining leadership for the purposes of understanding your role, function or expertise it is a complex and perplexing maze to work through. Clearly, you can’t be all things to all people in all situations. But that means you have to reach clarity about what leadership means for you, right now, in your current situation. The way to do this is to define your purpose. Here are 5 steps which help you get to the heart of the definition of leadership for you, by understanding your purpose.
1. Establish the Why
Delving into the “why” of your organisation or cause is essential
Simon Sinek’s great book Start With Why describes “The Golden Circle” This theory describes a sequence of thinking which makes a business or cause get to the heart of their purpose. In this circle, Sinek contends that every business understands what they do, they are likely to understand how what they do adds value or is unique. Sinek contends though, what is usually missing is the why of what they do. He also pushes the theory people “don’t buy into what you do, they buy into why you do what you do”.
When I was leading a high profile team, I asked what our purpose was. At first, the depth of understanding was true but didn’t really get to the ultimate meaning which resonated. So the first reply to the question about our purpose of our team was to provide a level of service to the customer. Commendable and one level of why. However, after going into more depth, we found that as a team our real purpose was to make a significant difference, by adding valuable expertise. So step one in defining your purpose is to drill down until you find a purpose which finds an emotional connection. Or in other words, a purpose which is meaningful for both you and others.
2. Articulate the impact
I still have a dream, a dream deeply rooted in the American dream – one day this nation will rise up and live up to its creed, “We hold these truths to be self evident: that all men are created equal.” I have a dream …
—Martin Luther King Jr. (1963)
Defining the impact of what you want to achieve enables you to clearly state what the outcomes will be and what that means. Martin Luther King Jr in his famous “I have a dream speech”. didn’t just talk about eradicating discrimination and eliminating racism. He set out his vision and dream and what that would mean in the end, that all men are created equal. Likewise, business leaders need to articulate the impact their product or service will have on their customer. The end aim should not be producing the product or service, it must be the difference that the product will make. So the second step in defining your purpose must be about articulating the impact.
3. Describe what is important to you
Understanding what is important to you is at the heart of defining leadership purpose. This is about identifying your values and world view. If your why and impact is centred around money and/or fame and those are important values in your life, then fine. However, if your heart is really about family, friends and people, then your setting your why and impact around money and fame might not be outcomes which will sustain your interest in the long term.
Don’t just use words or groups to articulate what is important to you, turn them into statements. Once you have statements you can assess how well you are living your values and priorities. So one value might be your children. However, that in itself is just a concept. By turning it into a statement, or series of statements you can gauge your success or not. For example: “I will be at home every night before my children go to bed to read them a night time story”. You know you are living your values to the extent to which that statement is true.
4. Understand your personality
Your personality often likes to feel safe and anchored. Yet to be a leader you must feel consistent and effective both in and out of your comfort zone. To make sure your own self doesn’t get in the way of your leadership vocation, and to discover your leadership purpose, you need to understand your self.
There are many facets to your personality and a myriad of tools which help you analyse yourself. However, in my view, there are several components which make up your own unique self. At a very basic level, understanding these components help you to become self-aware:
- What aspects of yourself which serve you and those which don’t.
- Your emotional guidance system
- Thinking patterns
- Beliefs and blockages
- How you relate to others and your world
5. Make decisions with your heart and mind
You need to be emotionally invested in what you want to do but not to the extent that it is a misplaced passion. Gregg Braden’s groundbreaking book: Resilience of the Heart discusses the heart-mind connection. When making decisions with your heart and mind, you feel mentally and emotionally at peace. This peace allows you to access your intuition and is the conduit to your subconscious minds.
Wisdom comes from mindfulness and bringing this practice to the leadership role is essential. Emotional as well as intellectual intelligence can be achieved. However, developing mindfulness is like building up muscle: it takes effort and practice.