What Is the Definition of Leadership?

Are You a Good Leader?

She's the boss around here
A good leader in action. PeopleImages.com / Getty Images

Leadership Definition

What is leadership? A simple definition is that leadership is the art of motivating a group of people to act towards achieving a common goal.

This definition captures the leadership essentials of being able to inspire others and being prepared to do so. Effective leadership is based upon ideas (whether original or borrowed), but won't happen unless those ideas can be communicated to others in a way that engages them enough to act as the leader wants them to act.

Put even more simply, the leader is the inspiration and director of the action. He or she is the person in the group that possesses the combination of personality and leadership skills that makes others want to follow his direction.

Is Business Leadership Solely About Improving the Bottom Line?

In business, leadership is welded to performance. While it's not solely about profit, those who are viewed as effective leaders are those who increase their company's bottom lines - to the point that people with leadership titles and responsibilities are often turfed out if their efforts don't meet the expectations of profit set by their boards, higher management or shareholders.

To further confuse the definition of leadership, we tend to use the terms "leadership" and "management" interchangeably, referring to a company's management structure as its leadership, or to individuals who are actually managers as the "leaders" of various management teams.

I am not saying that this is a bad thing, just pointing out that leadership involves more. To be effective, a leader certainly has to manage the resources at her disposal. But leadership also involves communicating, inspiring and supervising - just to name three more of the primary skills a leader has to have to be successful.

Is a Leader Born or Made?

While there are people who seem to be naturally endowed with more leadership abilities than others, I believe that people can learn to become leaders by improving particular skills.  (See The Best Advice on Being a Business Leader and Secrets of Leadership Success.)

As I say in 5 Keys to Leadership for Small Business, "Leadership is a winning combination of personal traits and the ability to think and act as a leader, a person who directs the activities of others for the good of all. Anyone can be a leader..."

Writing in Forbes magazine, Erika Andersen, author of Leading So People Will Follow, says, like most things – leadership capability falls along a bell curve. So the fact is that most folks who start out with a modicum of innate leadership capability can actually become very good, even great leaders (Are Leaders Born or Made?)

Psychology Today agrees: The best estimates offered by research are that leadership is about one-third born and two-thirds made, although having inborn qualities such as being assertive, extroverted, empathic and having the degree of social intelligence that allows a person to accurately size up social situations and understand social processes does make it easier to learn how to be a good leader.

The Evolution of a Leader - Steve Jobs

Steve Jobs is a classic example of someone who was probably not born to be a leader. After starting Apple Computer from his garage in 1976 he was fired by the board of directors in 1985 when the company was under intense competition and he disagreed with the CEO on of the future direction of the business. After founding Pixar Animation Studios and NeXT Computer he was eventually rehired by Apple in 1997 as CEO and went on to develop the revolutionary iPod, iPhone, and many other products.

By all accounts, Steve Jobs was a very mercurial genius who early in his career routinely yelled at employees, co-workers, partners, and vendors. According to some ex-employees of Apple and NeXT, he was intolerant of anything he viewed as failure and his foul-mouthed tirades were the stuff of legend. He apparently believed in being brutally honest with others and that their feelings were irrelevant. He did not conduct formal reviews with employees and was very sparing with praise for a job well done.

However, according to recent biographies as he matured his management style began to shift and he began to moderate some of his more negative traits and have more empathy for others, realizing that people had limits. Perhaps because he was for years estranged from his own daughter he tried to become a father figure to his employees and develop a sense of work-life balance. On his return to Apple he was forced to cut staff and was quoted as expressing concern for families of employees that were laid off. 

Famous quotes by Steve Jobs:

"Being the richest man in the cemetery doesn't matter to me. Going to bed at night saying we've done something wonderful, that's what matters to me."

"Innovation distinguishes between a leader and a follower."

"Be a yardstick of quality. Some people aren't used to an environment where excellence is expected."

"I want to put a ding in the universe."

For more perspectives on and definitions of leadership, see Business Quotations on Leadership.

Examples: Janine found that taking a leadership course really helped her learn how to manage and supervise her employees more effectively.

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