The Best Defintion of Leadership

by  Susan Mazza  |  Leadership Development

When I ask you for a definition of leadership, what would you say? As a leadership community do we need a definition? Can we agree on a “best” definition?

It seems there are no shortage of definitions of leadership.  But can we create any consensus on the best definition?  What defines leadership in a way that inspires agreement in the majority?  That’s a question Susan Mazza addressed in a blog post from February 2009. The question still remains.  Her title:

The Best Definition of Leadership

…does not exist.

There is not one agreed upon definition in the world despite how much leadership has been studied and written about. As of today 316,641 results returned when searching Amazon for books on leadership. According to Warren Bennis in Leaders (1997) “academic analysis has given us more than 850 definitions of leadership”. I think it is fair to say that defining leadership will be studied and debated for a long time to come and it is likely we will never all agree on THE BEST definition.

Although that is the question I have been asked and challenged about the most.

A very good friend even wrote to me having spent a good deal of time reading what I wrote, thinking and searching the internet trying to help me do a better job of defining leadership. The definition I offered in one of my posts was “Translating vision into reality” by Warren Bennis. Yet she strongly believes that “Vision is not a catalyst for leadership.” Essentially the definition I had offered in her worldview was just wrong. Yet the most interesting thing of all was that everything she said to make her point completely validated what I was trying to say to begin with about leadership and leading.

Could a definition actually be getting in the way?

Perhaps offering a definition of leadership was a mistake. Not because I offered a “wrong” definition. Warren Bennis is well known as an expert in this field so it certainly wasn’t wrong. But because I tried to define something that perhaps cannot be adequately expressed with the simplicity and accuracy expected from the definition of anything.

So why do we keep trying to define it?

People expect you to be able to define the thing you are writing about or teaching. It is a valid expectation so naturally I have offered one. But definitions rarely help you understand and/or do the very thing you are trying to define. For example, I can define balance, but does that help me to achieve the balance necessary to ride a bicycle? In the case of leadership I have never seen a definition that has helped anyone instantly know how to lead.

What do we seek when we ask for a definition? I think we are seeking “the truth” about it. Yet trying to define leadership is a bit like trying to define beauty: it has many interpretations, although we know it when we see it. It is also said that beauty is in the eyes of the beholder. In fact, beauty does not look the same in all cultures. And perhaps neither does leadership. This points to the power of context in shaping our interpretations of “truth” about anything, including leadership.

What could be more useful than a definition?

The notion of a “random act of leadership” is my attempt to take leadership out of the realm of theory and develop a rich context for leading that can give EVERYONE access to leading in their day to day work and lives. My purpose is not to define leadership. It is to empower more people to see and seize opportunities to lead more readily and more often in everyday work and life. My focus is on identifying the actions of leading so we can do it more and make a bigger difference ourselves rather than waiting for “the” leaders to make things happen.

So now what?

I say we create a context for leadership that helps us see opportunities to lead – to take actions that will make a difference in the things that matter to us. So I invite you to start thinking about and sharing your context for leadership. The question I’ll use to start the inquiry is this:

What does leadership look like to you?

One other note… Susan’s blog, Random Acts of Leadership, was just recognized as a Top Human Resources Blog by the folks at Online MBA.  Visit her blog for the her most recent thoughts on demonstrating leadership through everyday actions.

Photo by pedrosimoes7

What’s Next? Please leave a comment below to join the conversation…

About The Author

Articles By susan-mazza
Susan Mazza works with leaders and their organizations to transform their performance from solid to exceptional as a business consultant, leadership coach and motivational speaker. CEO of Clarus-WORKS, Founder/Author of Random Acts of Leadership™, and Co-Author of The Character-Based Leader, Susan was named one of the Top 100 Thought Leaders by Trust Across America in 2013.  »  View Profile

What People Are Saying

David Burkus  |  18 Jul 2010  |  Reply

You know it’s interesting. The debate continues to circle around getting a best definition out there. Yet how many disciplines can actually come up with a universally agreed upon definition of their discipline. If you ask 10 biologists to define biology, you’ll get 10 different answers. Yet they find a way to work together.

Mike Henry  |  19 Jul 2010  |  Reply

Agreed. Hopefully we can continue to work together and promote better leadership period.


Susan Mazza  |  21 Jul 2010  |  Reply

Definitions are far too limiting to do justice to complex subjects. Yet we like simple answers so the quest will continue…

Susan Mazza  |  23 Jul 2010  |  Reply

That’s a great point David that “definition” is challenging in many disciplines yet not having a shared definition does not seem to get in the way of working together.

Angela Bisignano  |  18 Jul 2010  |  Reply

Great post Susan. You raise some really interesting points. I think the concept for contextual leadership is a good one, especially in light of the fact that leadership means so many different things to so many different people.

Answering the question you raise in your post: What does leadership look like to me?

Leadership is courageously stepping into the thing that burns in your heart, because you know it is the right thing to do.

Susan Mazza  |  21 Jul 2010  |  Reply

Thanks Angela! “The thing that burns in your heart” is most certainly a catalyst for leadership and often for great leadership.

David Weale  |  19 Jul 2010  |  Reply

It’s a really good examination of the concept Susan. And it is quite possible that you’ve hit the nail on the head with your assertion that it’s contextual.

I see it as you do, that anyone can do leadership at any given time, and its possibly the frequency of leadership acts that causes others to begin to attribute the word ‘leader’ to another. But how any one person becomes defined by their unique collection of leadership acts is surely down to lots of different variables, (take a Nelson Mandela vs. a Jeffrey Immelt, for example).

Obviously, any definition needs to include leaders, followers, relationship, influence, purpose, movement, change, etc, and I guess the fact that the elements it has to have causes people to try to define it. But it’s possible that the fact we can’t put a finger on the ‘defining’ definition actually makes it more dynamic and beautiful (at least when ignited around worthy causes).

I like Joseph Rost’s (1993) definition, “An influence relationship among leaders and followers who intend real changes and outcomes that reflect their shared purpose”, though I accept it is not the definition that eclipses all others. It just works for me and I find it keeps me both communicative and focused.

Susan Mazza  |  23 Jul 2010  |  Reply

You add some great points David. Thank you

I think we each have our own leadership “fingerprint”. The elements may be the same, but the expression can take many forms. Your example of the contrast between Mandela and Immelt is a good one.

You definitely don’t have to be THE leader to be A leader in any given moment, yet as you point out it is the frequency of those acts of leadership that has someone start to be identified with the label of “leader”.

Choosing (or inventing) a definition is very useful especially to use as a guide or compass for our own leadership development. Rather than focusing on getting to THE one best definition I think we are better off choosing one that as you say “works for me”.

Caroline  |  20 Jul 2010  |  Reply

This is a very interesting way to look at defining leadership. It is definitely something that is hard to nail down– there are so many different types of leadership. I do believe that there are some attributes that can be regarded as universal for all leaders, however. I wrote a blog post on this same topic (and also used an image of waterfowl!) — http://360degreefeedback.blogspot.com/2010/06/so-what-is-leader-anyway.html

Thanks for the thought-provoking content!

Susan Mazza  |  23 Jul 2010  |  Reply

Thanks for weighing in here and for sharing your post on the subject.

I am a big fan of the practice of inventing your own definition of leadership. even if we end up adopting some or all of someone else’s words, in the process of the inquiry our understanding of leadership is enriched. I pulled the definition you offer in your post and share it here as a great example of this:

“Our definition of a true leader is:

Someone who is responsible for or oversees of a group of people, who has the ability to inspire others to achieve tasks and goals they might not have otherwise been capable of reaching, and who can create positive change in a situation.”

What is particularly interesting to me is that you used the adjective “true” in front of leadership. Adjectives are used more and more when the word leadership is used. Perhaps that is because the more we inquire into leadership the more we realize it is not a “one size fits all concept”. I would be curious to know why you chose to add the word “true”.

Perry Maughmer  |  20 Jul 2010  |  Reply

To paraphrase Neitzsche, “Leadership is dead and we killed it.” Having spent a great deal of my adult life reading, studying, pondering, and testing leadership theories, I can honestly say we should stop thinking/talking and start doing.
One of the questions I ask in all of the MBA classes is the following, “Of all the great leaders in the history of the world, how many were graduates of a leadership development course/class?” I think we all know the answer…ZERO.
There is only one way to learn to lead and that is doing it without a net. You have to be willing to put yourself out there and risk it all in order to lead. As the great John Wooden said, “It is what you learn after you know it all that counts.”
I think the challenge is that great leadership can only be evaluated in retrospect. We almost never identify it while it is happening and no one really makes the conscious decision, “I think I will perform leadership now.”
As Supreme Court Justince Potter Stewart said in Jacobellis v. Ohio (1964), “…hard-core pornography is hard to define but I know it when I see it.” So it is with leadership as well.

David Weale  |  20 Jul 2010  |  Reply

That said, John, the fact still remains that it is both an art and a science, otherwise there would be little point in us standing before MBA classes with content would there :) Wasn’t it Isaac Newton who said “If I have seen further it is only by standing on the shoulders of giants”…

You’re right about leaders being made and shaped via experience though. I really do think that the role of knowledge is to create the platform for revelation, i.e. leadership growth can only come from involving oneself in acts of leadership. Your John Wooden quote says it quite nicely.

On the subject of MBAs, do you think they actually cover the very important subject of leadership sufficiently anyway? As I see it, the majority choose to make planning, organizing and controlling a priority (still!). Would be interested to know your thoughts on that.

Susan Mazza  |  23 Jul 2010  |  Reply

Points well taken Perry. You just reinforced my belief that leadership isn’t something to be defined, but rather a context to think from in choosing our actions. The leaders we study did great things. If our study of leadership does not directly influence the choices we make and the actions we take then why bother? To influence our actions it must first influence our thinking. As David points out the study of leadership can help us “stand on the shoulder of giants”.

Yet even if the people we have identified in history as great leaders did not study leadership the ways we do today I would imagine there was someone they aspired to be like and/or people they learned from along the way in accomplishing the extraordinary. They may not have focused on a subject called leadership but they likely learned and grew as leaders by studying and being advised by others so they could accomplish what they set out to accomplish.

Join The Conversation