Defining Leadership


There are numerous perspectives and fundamental disagreement about the true definition of leadership. The good news is, most definitions of leadership fit into two broad categories. On one hand, we can think of a person who has a supervisory or management title as being a leader. On the other hand, we can think of a person who supports and guides a group to work toward common goals as being a leader. The first definition is based on a person’s formal role within an organization. The second definition is based on the function the leader serves and the group’s outcome.

Most books about leadership either explicitly or implicitly define leadership in terms of who is in charge, as does much of the academic study of leadership. The assumption is that leadership is about the position rather than the person. How do you know someone is a leader? You see if they have a title that implies they are in a leadership role. How do you study leadership to understand what it is about? You find people who are in leadership positions and study what they are doing. Who writes books about leadership? People who have been in leadership positions. Whose leadership books get published? Those who have had leadership titles in companies with recognizable brands. How does one get better at leadership? They read those books. The authors must know something about leadership, because they have been in leadership positions, right?

Maybe not. A large global survey of employee attitudes toward management found that less than half of respondents trust their boss. Another study suggests that about 50% of employees who quit their jobs do so because of their managers. Moreover, research indicates that somewhere between 30%-60% of those in leadership roles are actively destructive to their organizations. Based on these abysmal statistics it is likely that many authors of popular leadership books are part of the problem, not the answer. We can’t assume that people who are or have been in leadership roles can tell us much about how to be effective leaders. 

If you really want to understand what leadership is about, it is useful to start with three fundamentals about humans. First, we are biologically wired to live in groups. Second, because we are group-living, we are motivated to get along with other people because there is safety in numbers. Third, we are also hard-wired to compete for resources because better food and access to other resources maximizes our individual chance for survival.

People are inherently driven by two competing motives that can destroy group success. We all need to get along, but we also need to get ahead. Those needs are at odds, and when unmanaged in groups, the groups fail. The most successful groups are able to get along and get ahead. 

People rarely are balanced across these two motives. Some may be overly careful about going along with the group to avoid conflict. If the group is overly focused on harmony, it likely will lack direction. They may be happy and kind to each other, but they may not accomplish much. Others may be overly competitive in a way that destroys group harmony. If group members are focused on competing with each other, the group likely will be directionless because of competing perspectives. Only when both motives are managed and balanced within the group can it achieve safety in numbers and access to the resources necessary for survival. That was true thousands of years ago for groups living in caves, and it remains true today in the modern corporate world.

Leveraging Personality to Define Leadership

A more productive way to define leadership is about group outcomes. The purpose of leadership is to help group members balance needs for getting along and getting ahead in a way that maximizes the group’s success. If we define leadership as helping the group to succeed, suddenly a title or position becomes irrelevant. 

There is a great deal of high-quality research on the personality characteristics of effective leaders. Essentially, there are three aspects of personality that impact leadership ability:

  1. The Bright Side – This describes day-to-day work reputation, and characteristics like drive, emotional resilience, and one’s ability to work well with a variety of people. This is particularly important for leadership success. 
  2. The Dark Side – These are characteristics that can be overused, especially when a leader is reacting in the moment, not self-managing, or stressed. These characteristics are known to interfere with communication and relationship-building, gaining buy-in and clarity on direction, and the ability to balance conformity with being flexible and independent-minded. 
  3. The Inside (Values) – Although related to personality, values are different. They are more about one’s intentions or preferences and are key to the fit between a leader and his/her organization’s values.  For example, an individual who values and creates a culture of creativity and experimentation will not fit very well in a nuclear facility where processes and protocols must be followed precisely to ensure safety.

Personality predicts leadership ability. By using personality measures, you can gain insight into one’s ability to lead effectively, even if they’ve never been in a position of leadership. Understanding a person’s natural strengths and development needs concerning integrity, judgment, competence, and vision can help organizations strategically invest in development activities that will improve performance in leadership roles.

So, based on the points in this article, here are five essential things we know about leadership:

  1. Leadership is about the ability to guide and help a group to achieve its goals. It’s not about a title or position.
  2. Leading is about providing a group with direction and making sure the group works together to pursue that direction.
  3. The ultimate test of whether one is a leader is whether one’s group is successful.
  4. It is largely unimportant whether one thinks they are a leader, but it is critically important whether others think they are.
  5. Leadership effectiveness is not a mystery. Understanding the similarities and gaps between one’s personality characteristics and those related to leadership success can provide one with the strategic insight to lead effectively.