Our Definitions Of Leadership Are Mostly Wrong

We don't have enough strong leaders. No wonder. We can't even define the term.

David Wagner, Executive Editor, Community & IT Life

July 3, 2014

6 Min Read

Business technology sites such as this one have long exhorted CIOs to take on a bigger leadership role in their companies. It's a capital idea except for one problem: No one seems to know what the heck leadership is.

There are more leadership quotes, definitions, and explanations than there are strong leaders. Before we settle on a good one, let's examine why so many of them are wrong in the first place.

The Oxford English Dictionary defines leadership as "the action of leading a group or people in an organization." No help there -- what's the definition of lead? The OED says it means to "be in charge or command of."

I'm pretty sure 21st century business leaders will find that definition lacking. Simply being in charge of something doesn't make you a leader.

Let's turn to one of the great leadership gurus of the 20th century, Peter Drucker, one of the founding fathers of management literature and theory. Drucker said: "The only definition of a leader is someone who has followers."

OK, but there's an obvious problem with that definition, and it's one we're going to see repeated again and again: It relies on knowledge after the fact. A successful leader does draw followers. A bad one loses them. It's easy to call Eisenhower a good leader, because he led an Allied victory in World War II and went on to get elected President. That's a lot of followers. But there was a moment before Eisenhower had followers where he had leadership potential, a set of skills and knowledge that would turn him into an effective leader. The trick is to find and cultivate leadership before it becomes obvious.

Consider a few other famous quotes on leadership:

The best executive is the one who has sense enough to pick good men to do what he wants done, and self-restraint enough to keep from meddling with them while they do it. – Theodore Roosevelt

Leadership is influence -- nothing more, nothing less. – John Maxwell, author of more than 60 books, mostly on leadership

Leadership is solving problems. The day soldiers stop bringing you their problems is the day you have stopped leading them. They have either lost confidence that you can help or concluded you do not care. Either case is a failure of leadership. – Gen. Colin Powell

All these definitions have something in common: They don't tell people how to lead. They just describe it after the fact. A leader picks "good men." Great, how do you identify them? Presumably after the good men do their good job. "Leadership is influence." Great, how does one exert influence before he or she is a known leader, or measure the impact of influence until after the job is done? "Leaders stop being leaders when their people don't ask them for help anymore." OK, so at what point did the leader stop being a leader? Clearly, somewhere before all the failure. It just took everyone awhile to notice.

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Let me share one more long definition of leadership, from one of America's great writers, David Foster Wallace. For me, this is the Platonic bad definition of leadership:

The weird thing is that the word "leader" itself is cliche; and boring, but when you come across somebody who actually is a real leader, that person isn't cliche or boring at all; in fact he's sort of the opposite of cliche and boring.

Obviously, a real leader isn't just somebody who has ideas you agree with, nor is it just somebody you happen to believe is a good guy. Think about it. A real leader is somebody who, because of his own particular power and charisma and example, is able to inspire people, with "inspire" being used here in a serious and non-cliche way. A real leader can somehow get us to do certain things that deep down we think are good and want to be able to do but usually can't get ourselves to do on our own. It's a mysterious quality, hard to define, but we always know it when we see it, even as kids.

I'm especially unhappy with this definition because it commits the cardinal sins of so many leadership definitions: It tells no one how to lead; it assumes quality after the fact; and it assumes people are born to be leaders.

People in leadership positions like definitions such as this one because it imbues them with special and mysterious powers. It helps them maintain their power because it creates the illusion that not everyone can be a leader. You are either a born leader or not. And obviously if you have risen to a leadership position, you were born with the qualities that got you there and are therefore beyond question.

Anyone can cherry-pick bad definitions, but I think I've picked representative examples. The links I've provided offer dozens more definitions that commit many of the same sins.

What we really need is a definition that states what leadership is, how to do it, and how to see it before it's obvious the job is done.

Here's a definition that, while not perfect, offers a starting point for discussion:

Leadership is inspiring others to pursue your vision within the parameters you set, to the extent that it becomes a shared effort, a shared vision, and a shared success. – Steve Zeitchik, CEO of Focal Point Strategies

This definition implies a skill set -- having a strategic vision, communicating that vision, and knowing how to delegate. It implies success like most of the other definitions, but doesn't equate that success to the leadership itself as much as to the shared vision and effort.

Still, I'm not completely happy. Its "how to" advice is still a bit vague. And leadership doesn't come only in times of success. One only had to watch the leadership of goaltender Tim Howard during the US World Cup loss against Belgium -- and hear his modest, team-first comments after the match -- to understand that leadership can come in defeat.

But for now, it's the best definition I've found in my 10-plus years of covering leadership for a living. What's your favorite definition? How do you define leadership? What are the qualities you look for? Tell us what you think in a comment below.

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About the Author(s)

David Wagner

Executive Editor, Community & IT Life

David has been writing on business and technology for over 10 years and was most recently Managing Editor at Enterpriseefficiency.com. Before that he was an Assistant Editor at MIT Sloan Management Review, where he covered a wide range of business topics including IT, leadership, and innovation. He has also been a freelance writer for many top consulting firms and academics in the business and technology sectors. Born in Silver Spring, Md., he grew up doodling on the back of used punch cards from the data center his father ran for over 25 years. In his spare time, he loses golf balls (and occasionally puts one in a hole), posts too often on Facebook, and teaches his two kids to take the zombie apocalypse just a little too seriously. 

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