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Defining Leadership

Mitch McCrimmon, Papillon MDC Inc.

Can you define leadership in a way that does not entail being in charge of people? Can your definition account for leadership shown by outsiders, such as green leaders, who aren’t in charge of those who follow?

When we think about leadership, we visualize a person at the head of a group. But this rules out several kinds of leadership that don’t entail being in charge of anyone:

  • Outsiders, like green leaders, having a leadership impact on faraway communities they have never met.
  • Market leading companies, like Apple, leading their competitors.
  • Countries that implement new policies, leading others to follow their example.
  • Bottom-up leadership shown when a front-line innovator convinces management to adopt a new product.
  • Martin Luther King’s leadership impact on the general population.
  • Leading by example, where employees demonstrate a better way of working and colleagues follow suit.
  • Managers promoting a new idea in a meeting with peers and having a one-off leadership impact on them without being seen as the group’s informal leader.

None of these kinds of leadership involves being in charge of followers. The leader may not even know those who follow and, in two cases, countries and market leading companies, are not even individuals: leadership can be shown by groups.

A broad definition of leadership

There is only one thing that all of the above kinds of leadership share: some individuals or groups follow the lead of some other individuals or groups. In each case, those who follow are influenced to do so. No one makes a decision for them or takes charge of anyone even informally. Thus, all such instances of leadership are based on pure, non-coercive, informal influence; no formal authority is involved.

A broad definition of leadership that captures these diverse instances is: leadership influences others to change direction, either by example or by advocating a better way.

…leadership influences others to change direction, either by example or by advocating a better way.

This means that leadership is influence, nothing more. We need to be clear that NOT ALL forms of influence count as leadership. There are kinds of influence, such as selling, TV advertising or persuading your children to eat their vegetables that is not leadership.

Applying our definition to people in charge of groups

If leadership means influencing people to think or act differently, and it is not a role by definition, then all role aspects of being a CEO, president or manager must not count as leadership. If leadership is not a role, then those in charge can only SHOW leadership, not BE leaders. There are no leaders, just occasional leadership acts.

Disreputable people can show leadership, including criminals. Artists with zero emotional intelligence can have a leadership impact on other artists, simply by the beauty and novelty of their work. They may not even want to have this leadership impact. This means that any personality trait that is alleged to be essential for leadership is really only a situational requirement. Certain traits may be necessary in order to influence some people on some issues in some situations. For example, you couldn’t take a leadership stand on a particular moral principle without being seen to adhere to that principle yourself.

The bottom line is that, what we normally call leadership traits are really what it takes to influence people to change direction. But this is always in the eye of the beholder, hence totally situational. When we think of the heads of organizations then we need to see them as executives or managers who only occasionally show leadership. Their role makes them managers while leadership is an intermittent influence process not a role.

Consider trust as a conventionally important leadership trait. If you want to show leadership to people, to influence them, they may need to trust you if, for example, you are asking them to help you achieve a difficult, risky task, to venture into the unknown. However, if you are leading by example, on an everyday work process, your followers can judge for themselves whether your action is worthwhile and they may not need to trust you. One-off acts of influence are more situational then roles in terms of the traits they require to have a leadership impact. Conversely being a manager means occupying a role and ALL role occupants need to be trusted, not just leaders but partners, store cashiers and lighthouse operators.

So, in defining leadership we first need to decide whether it is a role or not. And, if not, a totally different picture emerges, one that is more situational.

Up next:

Our Guest Client Blogger Michael Eliesen, CEO of NTD Apparel Inc. will discuss the practice of leadership. Stay tuned!

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