I am currently updating my coaching notes and training for Pillar 7 of the Eight Pillars of Business Prosperity, Leading Your Team and thought I should answer the questions:
"What is a leader?"
"What is leadership?"
It sounds silly but for all the studies into leadership, the traits of being a leader and how you can become a better leader, there doesn't seem to be any agreed definition of the basics.
Tom Peters Definition Of A Leader
Here is Tom Peters giving his views on the definition of a leader (the video is 3:52 long)
When you watch the video, you will see that even this exceptional thinker doesn't come out with his own clear definition of what is a leader.
He quotes other people on leadership. For example Robert Greenleaf (author of Servant Leadership) said "the essence of the leader is to induce people to grow" and Napoleon said "a leader is a dealer in hope" (just noticed that leader and dealer are anagrams - interesting).
Dictionary Definitions Of Leaders and Leadership
The Merriam Webster dictionary says rather unhelpfully that a leader is "a person who leads".
It then goes on to say that a leader is "a person who has commanding authority or influence".
That doesn't capture it for me.
Using the same dictionary to find a definition for leadership it gives:
"1 : the office or position of a leader
2 : capacity to lead
3 : the act or an instance of leading"
Rather too much use of the word stem "lead..." to make much sense there.
Leader And Leadership Quotes
In my search to find a simple answer to the question "what is a leader?", I thought I would take a look at the quotes on leaders and leadership to see if great wisdom makes the definitions any clearer.
After all, I think those of us who have experienced great (or woeful) leadership would agree that being a leader is different from being a manager or a boss.
“A boss creates fear, a leader confidence. A boss fixes blame, a leader corrects mistakes. A boss knows all, a leader asks questions. A boss makes work drudgery, a leader makes it interesting.” Russell H. Ewing
Perhaps I have a time or culture difference but I think the term boss is used with a certain amount of affection and respect in the UK in the 21st century. I like the idea that a leader creates confidence.
“A leader takes people where they want to go. A great leader takes people where they don't necessarily want to go, but ought to be.” Rosalynn Carter
This is an interesting definition and I like the idea that it brings in the journey but it smacks of the old fashioned idea that "a leader knows best".
“If your actions inspire others to dream more, learn more, do more and become more, you are a leader.” John Quincy Adams (American 6th US President 1825-29)
Inspire is an important word for leadership but at the moment I am missing any sense of collective purpose.
“In simplest terms, a leader is one who knows where he wants to go, and gets up, and goes.” John Erksine
Whoops this definition of a leader seems to have forgotten all about the team of followers.
“People ask the difference between a leader and a boss. The leader leads, and the boss drives.” Theodore Roosevelt quotes (American 26th US President 1901-09)
Back to the lead word stem problem on this quote but it did make me that the leader is at the front, pointing the way forward, while the non-leader is at the back, try to push the employees to do something.
“The leader is one who mobilizes others toward a goal shared by leaders and followers... Leaders, followers and goals make up the three equally necessary supports for leadership.” Gary Wills
This seems to be moving towards my definition of what is a leader since it talks about bring people together towards a shared purpose.
What Does Wikipedia Say About Leadership?
Over on Wikipedia it says "Leadership is one of the most relevant aspects of the organizational context. However, defining leadership has been challenging."
It has a definition from M Chemers leadership is the “process of social influence in which one person can enlist the aid and support of others in the accomplishment of a common task”.
It also quotes Alan Keith, "Leadership is ultimately about creating a way for people to contribute to making something extraordinary happen."
My romantic soul likes the idea of "something extraordinary" and it links into a phrase I remember that leadership is about "creating extraordinary results from ordinary people."
What Do You Think Is The Definition Of A Leader?
I didn't expect to have this difficulty answering the question "what is a leader?"
I'm still polishing my definition but I've given you a few hints based on my responses to the quotes.
It seems strange to develop so many theories about the traits of great leaders and how you can become a better leader when there doesn't seem to be a clear definition.
So what do you think?
What is a leader?
It will be great to read your thoughts about the definition of leader and / or leadership.