Defining Leadership – Go Ahead, Try it, I Dare You

I recently looked at a Tom Peters video on the definition of leadership. It’s good, and what’s not to like about Tom… but I did find it interesting, having played it and then reading the transcript, that he never really gave his own definition of leadership. In fact, I read he once asked his readers for a definition and received 287 different definitions!

He cites Robert Altman’s lifetime achievement Oscar acceptance speech: “The director allows an actor to become more than they’ve ever dreamed of being.”

He mentions Robert Greenleaf, who 25 years ago, wrote “Servant Leadership”: The essence of the leader is to induce people to grow. “When you look at a football team—a coach and a quarterback—when you look at a ballet company—the choreographer and the dancer—the magic is when the dancer or the quarterback is shocked by how much they have grown as we worked together. And I, the leader, am shocked at how much they have grown.”

He then goes on to describe what leadership is “about”, with references to:

Napoleon – “said it better than me, no surprise. He said, “A leader is a dealer in hope.”

Roosevelt and Churchill – “they made people believe that the sun would come up the next morning.”

and Rudy Giuliani – “what he did for 18 hours on 9/11, and changed the perception of millions of people and the perception of him. That’s what it is all about.”

So OK, great examples of what leadership is “all about”….. but what exactly is “leadership”? I’m not talking about examples of leadership, or characteristics of leadership…. but what is the actual definition of “leadership”?

Here’s the Merriam Webster definition:
1. the office or position of a leader ; 2 : capacity to lead; 3 : the act or an instance of leading

That sure doesn’t help.

How about Warren Bennis’s: “The capacity to create a compelling vision and translate it into action and sustain it. Successful leaders have a vision that other people believe in and treat as their own.”

Not bad.

Or Scott Adams: “‘I believe that all leaders are evil, and I mean that in the best possible sense. After all, I am a capitalist. A leader has to be somebody who’s getting people to do things which don’t seem to make sense to them or are not in their best interest — like convincing people that they should work 14 hours a day so that someone else can make more money.”

Naw, too cynical for me.

Although it’s almost exactly the sames as Harry Truman’s definition: “My definition of a leader . . . is a man who can persuade people to do what they don’t want to do, or do what they’re too lazy to do, and like it.”

And OMG, Here’s over 50 more definitions!

Maybe this one sums it up best?:
“[There are] almost as many definitions of leadership as there are persons who have attempted to define the concept.” Stogdill (1974, p.259)

At the risk of adding to the confusion, here’s my humble attempt:

“Leadership is the ability to enable people and organizations to achieve extraordinary results”.
– McCarthy

How about you – how would you define leadership? Go ahead, take a shot at it!