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Jesse Lyn Stoner


A Definition of Leadership for These Pressing Times

Influence people and direct them toward a common goal

Published: Thursday, September 15, 2016 - 16:19

It’s pretty common these days to hear complaints about lack of leadership, poor leadership, and disappointment with those who are in leadership roles. In a recent World Economic Forum survey, 86 percent of the respondents reported they believe there is a leadership crisis in the world today.

But with all this talk about leadership, are we talking about the same thing? We make a lot of assumptions about what leadership means. Without a common definition of leadership, we are in danger of talking at cross-purposes with each other during the pressing conversations we need to have.

What is your definition of leadership?

You can find descriptions of many types of leadership—servant leadership, visionary leadership, situational leadership, transformational leadership, charismatic leadership, authentic leadership, self-leadership. But strip away the adjectives, and it’s not easy to find a clear definition of simply leadership.

Most dictionaries say that leadership is the act of leading. The common definition of “lead” is: “Show the way to a destination by going in front; be in charge of or command.” (Merriam-Webster, Oxford, et. al.) But these definitions are rooted in the assumption that leadership is based on authority and hierarchy, and not everyone holds this view.

Related words for leadership include guide, usher, escort, steer, shepherd, precede, cause, persuade, influence, command, govern, rule, control, and direct. These words have vastly different meanings!

The academic definitions don’t help much, either. Management textbooks define leadership as: “The process of influencing others to support accomplishing a common goal.” (Northouse, Ivancevich, Jones, et. al.) But that leaves us with some important unanswered questions.

What’s the relationship between leader and leadership?

If a tree falls in the woods and no one hears it, is there a sound? If you attempt to lead and no one follows, are you really a leader?

You can lead the way by going where no one has gone before. But if no one follows, are you leading... or simply exploring?

The dictionary says “leadership is the act of leading.” But is leadership really an “act,” or does it occur as result of followers responding?

James II of England succeeded his brother Charles II to the throne. Initially there was strong support for his accession. However, his pro-Catholic edicts in a strongly Protestant country were consistently resisted, and within three years he was deposed. King James had the title of “leader,” and history considers him a leader, but his followers did not follow, and he never provided leadership.

Is leadership simply a matter of influencing followers?

A recent Towers Watson study found 75 percent of all change initiatives were unsuccessful because leaders failed to get full support for the change from those who were needed to implement it. The leaders might have influenced their followers to accept the change and not actively resist it, but their leadership efforts failed because they did not mobilize people to actively support the initiative.

Leadership involves not simply influence, but specifically influence that unites followers around common goals and focuses their effort on achieving them.

How is this different from a definition of management?

Isn’t this what management is about—influencing people to do a good job in accomplishing the goals? How is leadership different?

The clue is in the origin of the word “lead.” It is derived from Old English lǣdan and Proto-Germanic laidijaną, which mean “to go.”

If your leadership efforts are focused only on task accomplishment and not on where you’re going, there is nowhere for people to follow. So we can add that leadership about going somewhere, not just about accomplishing a common goal.

Leadership involves influencing the direction people are going, and since leadership efforts unite and mobilize followers, we could expand that to say leadership involves influencing people to go somewhere together.

My definition of leadership

Pulling the pieces together, I have arrived at this definition:

Leadership is a phenomenon that occurs when one influences the direction people are going and unites them toward accomplishing a common goal.

Instead of thinking of leadership as a role or as an action, with this definition we see leadership as a phenomenon that emerges.

This definition takes leadership out of the realm of power and control because it implies leadership is the result of a social contractnot simple cause and effect. Leadership is not reserved for the elite. Each moment holds a leadership opportunity. It shows that leaders whose intentions are divisive instead of unifying will not be successful in providing leadership. And it sets the stage to understand leadership from a perspective that:
• Clearly separates the phenomenon of leadership from the role of leader
• Encourages people with good ideas to speak up and engage—to provide leadership
• Encourages the official leaders and others to recognize and value emergent leadership when it occurs
• Helps us in considering alternative organizational structures, rather than holding onto structures that support outdated, control-oriented models 
• Helps guide us, when selecting leaders, to choose leaders who will be successful in providing leadership

What are your thoughts?

These are my thoughts, and I would love to hear yours. Do you have your own definition of leadership? A suggestion to tweak mine? Some answers to my questions? Or some additional questions of your own?

First published Aug. 24, 2016, on Jesse Lyn Stoner's Blog. © 2016 Jesse Stoner.


About The Author

Jesse Lyn Stoner’s picture

Jesse Lyn Stoner

Jesse Lyn Stoner, founder of consultancy Seapoint Center, has worked with hundreds of leaders using collaborative processes to engage the entire workforce in creating their desired future. Stoner has authored several books including Full Steam Ahead! Unleash the Power of Vision (Berrett-Koehler Publishers, 2nd rev. ed. 2011), co-authored with Ken Blanchard. Stoner is recognized by the American Management Association as one of the Top Leaders to Watch in 2015 and by INC Magazine as one of the Top 100 Leadership Experts. Stoner has advanced degrees in psychology and family system, and a doctorate in organizational development.