Ask GovLoop – How Do You Define Leadership?

Welcome to the first installment of “Ask The Leadership Expert” on GovLoop. I am pleased to contribute to the GovLoop community!

Leadership is a hot topic. A Google search on “leadership” yields around 150 million hits. On, a search of “leadership” under book titles produces around 27,000 results, and a keyword search of “leadership” produces a total of over 350,000 results.

Some folks, however, don’t do a very good job of defining what they really mean by leadership when they talk about the subject. They’ll often use leadership as a synonym for management, vision, initiative, fortitude, integrity, or chutzpah. Indeed, there are more definitions of leadership than there are stars in the sky. Here are some examples:

— Leadership is the ability to step outside the culture to start evolutionary change processes that are more adaptive. Edgar Schein

— Leadership is a function of knowing yourself, having a vision that is well communicated, building trust among colleagues, and taking effective action to realize your own leadership potential. Warren Bennis

— A leader is the person in a group who directs and coordinates task-oriented group activities. Fred Fiedler

While these are all fine pronouncements about leaders and leadership, none of these descriptions includes a word that I think is imperative for a shining definition of leadership. That word is influence.

For a simple definition of leadership, I like the one offered by leadership guru John Maxwell: Leadership is influence – nothing more, nothing less. If I’m looking for a more academic definition of leadership, I’ll usually cite the definition from Peter G. Northouse: Leadership is a process whereby an individual influences a group of individuals to achieve a common goal. According to Professor Northouse, leadership has four key components: (1) leadership is a process, (2) leadership involves influence, (3) leadership occurs within a group context, and (4) leadership involves goal attainment.

In both the simple and academic definitions of leadership, the key word is influence. Anyone can be a leader by using influence to move others toward achievement of a goal or set of goals. You do not need to have a formal management position in an organization to be considered a leader. And in my humble opinion, simply because you hold a formal management position in an organization doesn’t mean you’re a leader. Managers have employees; leaders have followers.

So, how do you define leadership?

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Hi K. Scott! Great post. You might be interested in a couple of older posts (like, a year ago) that I wrote about leadership.

Dave Hebert

Leadership is getting people to willingly do something they probably wouldn’t have done otherwise.

That’s what’s often struck me about great leaders, anyway.

K. Scott Derrick

Hi GeekChick,

Thanks for your comments. I’ll check ’em out. Feel free to post your definition of leadership here.

K. Scott Derrick

Hi Dave,

That’s a nice definition! And indeed a tough thing to do. I think the key is to know how to influence people to do what they wouldn’t have done otherwise. Great leaders have a full set of “influence” tools on their tool belts and they know how and when to use them.


I like “influence” – it’s simple and effective. The trick is what happens when that influence is used for bad. Leadership is usually described in a good way. But as influence it’s more flexible – the 11-year old bully who convinces his friends to beat up the loner is a leader by this definition and reality but not necessarily what we hope for.

Love the 1st in the series. Working on getting the Ask the Leadership expert button up soon.

And GeekChick is right – she’s got some great ones on leadership as well.

K. Scott Derrick

Steve: Great observation. Leaders can use their influence for good or not. Coercion is one of the tools that some leaders have used to force change. Coercive leaders are often interested only in their own goal(s) rather than a common goal.

Thanks for working to get the Ask the Leadership button up soon.

Kitty Wooley

Great post, Scott! It’s past midnight now, wa-a-y-y-y too late to explain my definition of leadership. But I stayed up to read this discussion because it’s important.

Sometime, it would be interesting to think about whether our definitions of leadership (without regard to the sector in which we’re working) are robust and forward-thinking enough to encompass the entire range of scenarios in which we may find ourselves sometime, for example, a pandemic flu situation in which social distancing among the healthy or quarantining of the infected and exposed might have to be enforced, or a natural disaster on the scale of Hurricane Katrina, or even a country-wide rollout of a new program that affects millions of people.

I look forward to future posts!

Judith Lindenau

I’m working on an online course for a client right now….on ‘leadership’. Sure is hard to teach ‘influence’. But successful leadership is indeed just that. And there are leaders for good causes as well as socially destructive ones, big causes like hurricanes and the little causes involved in our daily living. Thanks for a thoughtful post.

Jerilyn Handel Polson

Mr. Govloop has a good point, but the question was what is leadership, not what is a good leader. I’m in the process of writing (in a group setting) the leadership principles embraced by a graduating CPM class. It is more ethics and value driven than a straight definition of leadership, so it addresses this point. Once we complete it, I will gladly post it here.

Jerilyn Handel Polson

Germain to Kitty’s comment, it is important for good leaders to have a range of leadership approaches in their toolbelt because different situations and work environments call for different leadership styles. Emergency situations like those she cites require more decisive, directive leaders; whereas planning in advance of such a possibility can achieve better outcomes through a more collaborative (read “takes longer”) approach.

Joe Flood

I like your point about being a leader without having to be a manager. Looking back, I think I have been a leader or an influencer without having people to order around. I think most people can point to similar experiences in their careers. This very broad notion of leadership is empowering.

K. Scott Derrick

Hi Kitty,

Thanks for your input on this. Regarding the issue of various scenarios you mention: I would think that different tools to influence others could be used depending on the context of the situation, such as geographic dispersion of people. These influence tools could include rational persuasion, consultation, coalitions, inspirational appeals, ingratiation, rewards, etc.

K. Scott Derrick

Hi Judith,

Thank you for your comments about leadership. I think that a great way to teach leadership is to introduce, show, and demonstrate the various approaches that a leader can use to enroll followers. While rational persuasion might work for one follower (or potential follower), a personal appeal might work better for another person or another situation. The key is to know what leadership tools are available to the leader and learn when to use them (or not use them).

Kitty Wooley

Joe, I certainly feel that, and agree wholeheartedly. And after having been a private sector supervisor and a government individual contributor, I find that the latter is much more my cup of tea at this point – and that, weirdly, I’ve developed astonishing influence across boundaries in the past few years. The influence developed slowly as the result of many conversations to find common ground, modest accomplishments, and kept promises. Going back to what Jerilyn was saying, some situations call for command presence that can evoke obedience from many people quickly, and that is a different kind of leadership whose influence springs from a different source. And this doesn’t even begin to encompass all possible models of leadership. By the way, two books I’ve rereading this year – because each sheds helpful light on leadership attributes and “modes” that the community will benefit from understanding – are James Hillman’s Kinds of Power: A Guide to its Intelligent Uses and Brafman and Beckstrom’s The Starfish and the Spider: The Unstoppable Power of Leaderless Organizations.

Jerrold Strong

Dave Hebert’s definition is close to Pozner and Kouses from the Leadership Challenge. I like that, but also like Max Depree’s from Leadership is an Art. He suggested that Leadership begins by defining reality, and ends with, “Thank You.” Everything in between is serving those who do the work.

K. Scott Derrick

Jerrold Strong:

Thank you very much for your comments. How coincidental…Wednesday I posted the exact quotation you reference from Max Depree on the LeadershipTips Twitter page! Thanks again…