What is Leadership?

Challenges in Defining “Leadership”

There are seemingly as many definitions of “leadership” as there are scholars of leadership. Watts pulls out nine definitions to start his presentation – ranging from “ ‘Leadership is influence – nothing more, nothing less’ – John Maxwell” (Watts, 2018, p.4) to “ ‘Leadership is getting people to do what everyone else knows is the right thing to do, but who do not have the self-confidence to act on their own!’ Kevin Gazzara, senior partner Magna Leadership Solutions.” (Watts, 2018, p.4) on the same slide. There are similarities in the definitions – such as the concept of convincing people to perform tasks – as well as significant differences – such as Gazzara’s definition containing the concept of “the right thing to do”, where Maxwell is decidedly silent, and arguably dismisses, any moral compass in his definition.

Day and Antonakis note that most scholars would concur that “…leadership can be defined in terms of (a) an influencing process – and its resultant outcomes – that occurs between a leader and followers and (b) how this influencing process is explained by the leader’s dispositional characteristics and behaviors, follower perceptions and attributions of the leader, and the context in which the influencing process occurs.” (Day & Antonakis, 2012, p.5)

Day and Antonakis go on to discuss the need to differentiate leadership, with its persuasive elements, from raw power or managerial skill.  Both elements are potentially contained within the concept of leadership, as the leader may have explicit power and managerial ability.  However, the thought is that leadership transcends both power and management to a more holistic view of “mission accomplishment” – including aligning strategy and resources with group dynamics and abilities to “maximize the use of group members’ abilities and help resolve problems and conflicts in a group.” (Day & Antonakis, 2012, p. 6)

The definition of leadership put forward by Burns is perhaps most instructive. “…I define leadership as leaders inducing followers to act for certain goals that represent the values and the motivations – the wants and needs, the aspirations and expectations – of both leaders and followers” (Burns, 2010, p. 19)  Burns strikes at the heart of leadership in covering several key elements – namely: “inducing”, “act”, “values and motivations”, “wants and needs”, “aspirations and expectations” and “both leaders and followers”.

Taking each of these elements in turn, “inducing” is the application of persuasive power to cause someone to do something.  That persuasive power is implied as psychological power in the definition – as opposed to physical power.  Having said that, many leaders throughout history have coupled their persuasive psychological power with physical elements.  Whether discussing the leadership of Julius Caesar or Osama bin Laden, within the political realm, there are often military or law enforcement elements that assist with inducing behavior in the event that the power of persuasion fails.

“Act” being part of the definition is a critical component. Mere influence without action is impotent leadership.  The leader is called to drive action by the followers to some tangible result. While some of the definitions noted in Watts’ PowerPoint do not include this element, leadership requires action on the part of followers to be effective and is a critical component of the definition.

The components: “values and motivations”, “wants and needs”, “aspirations and expectations” are all related, and Burns ties them together in series.  They refer generally to the “why” of followership and leadership.  The definition of leadership not only includes action, but also a motivation for action.  The induction of action requires a motivation.  Again, that motivation may be the need or want to avoid pain in a case of force-based leadership or may be as aspirational as self-actualization on the part of the leader and follower which may be found in some political, social and religious environments. Invoking a framework that may be best explored using Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, the “why” of leadership – particularly within the group – may play heavily to Maslow’s need for “Belongingness” – the ability to be part of a group, and a drive toward self-actualization through a common purpose.

Leadership and leaders appear throughout history and across cultures. Using the Maslow framework, the need to address psychological and physiological needs and desires as a component that drives leadership and followership appears hard wired into the human condition.   Recent studies have shown that these motivations are generally universal regardless of cultural differences, however the ordering of importance of Maslow’s various components may vary from culture to culture. (McLeod, 2018)   As Burns notes: “Leadership, unlike naked power wielding, is thus inseparable from followers’ needs and goals.” (Burns, 2010, p. 19)

Burns distinguishes transactional leadership – where there is an exchange of valued things – and transformational leadership – where the leaders and followers engage in a way to raise each other to “higher levels of motivation and morality.” (Burns, 2010, p. 19) In each case, however, the application of the psychological and physiological elements of Maslow may be applied as underlying drivers for the interaction.  The “why” of leadership and followership is driven by these factors, and the motivation for action must be contained in the definition of leadership as well.

Finally, Burns includes both leaders and followers in his definition of leadership.  This is instructive in that in order to lead, one must have met the “why” for both those leading as well as those being led. The definition acknowledges the dependency of the leader on the follower for both their ability to lead and identity as a leader.

What is Leadership?

When asked recently for a definition of “leadership”, the author put forward the following definition: “Leadership is the skill of effectively aligning a group towards a common purpose, and ensuring the purpose is achieved.” (Barton) In comparing the working definition to the analysis of the Burns definition, it covers many of the same elements.

The “act” is covered in the components of “alignment” and “ensuring the purpose is achieved”.  The “why” is addressed, though not as comprehensively as in the Burns definition, in the “common purpose” as the motivation for both leadership and followership.  Finally, the “who” is addressed in the “group”.  The followers are noted as the “group”, though the existence of the leader is implied in the definition.

When using the term “leader”, the author does not limit the definition to those who merely influence, nor those that are “good” people.

In reviewing the definitions in Watts’ presentation (2018, p.4), the lack of the Maxwell definition of leadership being the state of having influence doesn’t go far enough.  A situation where a person provides a “what not to do” example has influence, but is not leading, and is not a leader.  The influence – for example of an addict on a non-user to not overdose on opioids – is based on the influencer and influenced persons experience, action and values, but is not driving action in a desired direction by the “leader”/actor. There is no active leadership practiced here.

Conversely, it would be difficult to argue that Hitler, bin Laden, Caligula or many other historical personages were not “leaders” in their time, or of their people, societies or nations.  They had many followers and motivated them to action with common purpose and values. It would also be difficult to argue that those purposes and values were “the right thing to do” as posited by Gazzara in his definition – although the followers of the leader would have argued that their actions were likely “the right thing to do” at the time. While there is a desire to view leadership in a positive light, and bringing a group to a positive end, there are countless examples throughout history where that has not been the case – or where the cultural perspectives of what is “the right thing to do” is at best unclear.

With reflection and analysis, the question of “What is Leadership?” may be answered as:

“Leadership is the act of effectively aligning a group using common values and motivations towards a common purpose, and ensuring the common purpose is achieved.”




Antonakis, J., & Day, D. V. (2012). The Nature of Leadership (2nd ed.). London: SAGE.

Barton, E. J. (2018, August 21). Open Quick Links. Retrieved August 25, 2018, from https://marshall-bb.blackboard.com/webapps/discussionboard/do/message?action=list_messages&course_id=_95033_1&nav=discussion_board_entry&conf_id=_117571_1&forum_id=_125822_1&message_id=_1980148_1.

Burns, J. M. (2010). Leadership. New York: Harper Perennial.

McLeod, S. (2018). Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. Retrieved August 24, 2018, from https://www.simplypsychology.org/maslow.html

Watts, L. (2018, August 20). Intro and Theories of Leadership-no audio.pptx [PowerPoint]. South Charleston, WV.