Defining leadership: the three sins

A few weeks ago I sat in on a lecture given to members of the Australian public service. The topic was leadership, and the title went something like this: ‘Are new models of leadership needed?’

The exact details of presentation aren’t important, nor are the details of the speaker or of the audience. What is significant, and what I was curious about at the time, was the way that the speaker and audience were thinking about leadership.

Overall, I thought that the presentation was fine but there was scope for improvement. There was one point though where I was sincerely taken aback, and it was triggered by the introduction of the below image.

Funnily enough, the author of the image actually uses it to convey a misunderstanding of leadership.

Funnily enough, the author of the image actually uses it to convey a misunderstanding of leadership.

Now the image is pretty innocuous in and of itself, and it didn’t play a major role in the presentation. What was amazing to me was the reception it got. For the audience this image seems to have been some grand insight or revelation; people were singing its praises during question time and a number of people requested a copy of the image for their use later. Somehow this image had become a highlight of the talk.

This blew my mind. That’s because for me this image exemplifies everything that is wrong in a conceptualization of leadership.

Consequently, today I want to talk about the three sins of defining leadership.

To be clear, I don’t think the audience wasn’t smart, or that they should have had higher standard already. Really, a low bar is only to be expected given the overabundance of sub-par leadership material out there. I wouldn’t expect anyone wading through that quagmire to come out with clarity. The point is simply that I didn’t realize how low that bar would be, and that a higher standard is available and is easy to adopt.

So read on, and I hope that you will find below to be a handy guide for judging whether a leadership definition is likely help, or inhibit, our efforts in that area.

Sin 1: Leadership as outcomes

Leaders [are] individuals who significantly influence the thoughts, behaviours, and/or feelings of others.”[1]

The only definition of a leader is someone who has followers.”[2]

Leadership is the influencing process of leaders and followers to achieve organizational objectives through change.”[3]

Leadership [is] any and all behaviour which moves a group towards attainment of its goals.”[4]

This is perhaps the most common sin. Here leadership is defined by what it produces. Most often this is influence, where influence is to have other people come to think the way they do. Other times the outcomes that define leadership are things like organizational objectives, social change, or feelings of empowerment.

There are two critical problems with this approach. First, definitions of this style neglect the critical issue of process. That is, they talk about what we might expect the outcomes to be, but don’t provide any detail as to how to get there. Second, on many occasions the outcomes used to define leadership are multiply determined phenomena (e.g. any number of things can stop organizational goals being met). By tying leadership to such outcomes we allow ourselves to be distracted from leadership as a thing that happens among people. Here we are letting a vast number of unmeasured factors to decide whether a relationship is leadership or not.

For both these reasons this style of definition doesn’t provide any predictive power. In other words, because leadership is tied to what happens at the end of the process, and often what happens is in large part down to chance, we can only tell if something is leadership after-the-fact. Here the answer to ‘is this leadership?’ can only ever be ‘we will know in retrospect’.

Sin 2: Leadership as something positive

Leadership is defined as competencies, skills, knowledge, experience and processes needed to do extraordinary things in all circumstances and to perform at their personal and professional optimum to benefit themselves, the group and the organization.”[5]

Leaders are people who do the right thing; managers are those who do things right.”[6]

In a way this is just a worse version of Sin 1. Here we are still defining leadership by its outcomes, but now those outcomes are notoriously subjective and ill-defined. Who decides what is “the right thing” or what counts as a “benefit”? From whose perspective do we look? Using this approach, not only is leadership only identifiable in hindsight, but we are also relying on our ability to reach consensus about whose moral compass to use. Adopting this definition is a fast track to impassioned but fruitless arguments about who is a leader and who is a demagogue.

In the long run the intractability of this definition causes all possible substantive meaning of leadership to wither away. What we end up with is leadership as an empty platitude; nothing concrete remains, and the term serves as little more than a rhetorical tool to convey prestige or admiration. Are you in a ‘leadership committee’? Or undertaking ‘leadership development’? Don’t feel bad, but these are common contexts where the label is applied without really considering what leadership is. The term here simply serves to make things sound more impressive.

Sin 3: Leadership as a highly multifaceted phenomenon

Leadership over human beings is being exercised when persons with certain motives and purposes mobilize, in competition or conflict with others, institutional, political, psychological, or other resources so as to arouse, engage, and satisfy the motives of followers.”[7]

leadership [is] the art of empowering and mobilizing others to want to accomplish a mutually agreed-upon goal while advancing the group’s integrity and morale.”[8]

In these cases I feel like the authors have pretty much given up. That is, all attempts to pin leadership down to something tangible have failed, so they go the other way and throw in a complex collection of concepts. And there is a certain logic here. By allowing leadership to be broadly defined it means that they are less likely to be accused of leaving something out. Further, it creates scope to make pretty much any argument they want about organizational success or organizational behaviour and call it a thesis on leadership. It’s pretty convenient.

This is probably the most forgivable sin, but it is still unfortunate. There is a missed opportunity here to reserve the term leadership for something precise and important. Additionally, definitions as complex as this are subject to easy critique on logical grounds (e.g. which exactly are the necessary and sufficient conditions? Are some components redundant?).  As such, none of these are likely become popular in more serious circles and nor are they likely to become widely accepted. Instead we are left with every armchair theorist throwing their tweaked definition into the ring for contention. What does the term leadership mean at the end of the day? Frankly, it could mean anything.

So there you go. Three clear cut sins that are commonly committed when defining leadership. Remember these as a way to separate the useful definitions of leadership from the ones that are likely to distract, enrage, confuse, etc.

In fact, let’s make an example of the image that kicked this all off. How many sins does this lighthearted comparison commit? By my count all three. First, leadership is attached to a number of multiply determined outcomes (e.g. influences, develops, changes). Second, leadership is portrayed as a positive antidote to management (which incidentally is extremely unfair to management). And third, leadership is attached to such a complex array of ideas that it is impossible to derive a central concept. Overall, it doesn’t make the cut.

So which definitions are up to scratch?

Very few. It is relevant that none of our above examples were deliberately scraped from bottom of the leadership barrel. They were instead a convenient sample from books I had lying around and first page google results; many of which were penned by big names in leadership theory. These weren’t selected to name and shame; it is just that including them helps hammer home the reality that good leadership theory and good definitions of leadership are rare.

Now, of course, we think the social identity approach is a good theory that does provide definitional clarity,[9][10][11] but we will make the full case for this another time. Until then, feel free to subject our own definition of leadership to the same scrutiny that we have others.

Leadership: The process of influence (where influence is the internalization of others’ beliefs, attitudes, and values) via shared membership in psychological ingroups and the resulting motivation to emulate those who typify those ingroups.

We think it does pretty well.


[1] Gardner, H. (1995). Leading minds: An anatomy of leadership, p. 6.

[2] Drucker, P. F. (1996). Your leadership is unique. Leadership, 17(4), p. 54.

[3] Lussier, R., & Achua, C. (204). Leadership: Theory, application, & skill development. Thomson, p.5.

[4] Fraser (1978). Small groups: 1. Structure and Leadership. In H. Tajfel & C. Fraser (eds), Introducing social psychology. Penguin Education, p. 193.

[5] Waddell, D., Cummings, T. G., & Worley, C. G. (2004). Organisation development & change. Thomson, p. 537

[6] Bennis, W. (1984). The Four Competencies of Leadership.

[7] Burns, J. M. (1978). Leadership. New York: Harper & Row, p. 18

[8] Michel, E. (2011). Defining Leadership. The Leadership Institute at Harvard College [Blog post]. Retrieved from http://harvardleadership.wordpress.com/2011/11/18/defining-leadership/

[9] Turner, J. C., & Haslam, A. S. (2001). Social Identity, Organisations, and Leadership. In M. E. Turner (Ed.), Groups at Work: Theory and Research (pp. 25-65). London: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Publishers.

[10] Hogg, M. A. (2001). A social identity theory of leadership. Personality and Social Psychology Review, 5(3), 184-200.

[11] Haslam, S. A. (2001). Psychology in Organizations. London: SAGE Publications.

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