Leadership has been defined many ways. A contemporary author on leadership John Maxwell writes, “Leadership is influence–nothing more, nothing less” (1998, p. 17). Although defining leadership as an influence relationship is helpful, Maxwell’s definition is too general to be helpful and potentially dangerous. Defining leadership as influence is akin to defining doctors as “individuals who give people drugs”. James MacGregor Burns suggests the definition of leadership must separate true leadership from power-wielding tyrants (1995, p 10). Therefore, ethical consideration for the ultimate goal of leadership along with its impact on stakeholders must be accounted for within the definition.
Hughes, Ginnett, and Curphy write, “leadership is a complex phenomenon involving the leader, the followers, and the situation” (1995, p. 41). Also, John Kotter suggests the ultimate goal of leadership is some form of change (1995). Leadership expert Joseph Rost puts the various pieces of leadership together well by defining leadership as, “an influence relationship among leaders and followers who intend real changes that reflect their mutual purposes” (1991, p. 102). But, I would push back on the last part of this definition as leaders are responsible to balance the interests of all essential stakeholders, not only those of their followers. Also, some leadership decisions may serve a larger purpose not immediately beneficial to either the leader or followers (e.g. a decision to shut down an organization due to lack of funding).
“Leadership is an influence relationship among leaders and followers who intend real changes that reflect their mutual purposes”Joseph C. Rost, 1991, p. 102
The 3 Parts of Leadership
Similar to James McGregor Burns’ concern, I need a definition of leadership that separates “true” leadership from the powerful bullies of history, seeking only their own glory. Because of its specificity, I have grown to love Rost’s definition. It contains three parts:
- Leadership is an influence relationship (versus an influence of power).
- Involves intending real change.
- Balances the concerns of followers and all major stakeholders.
As you lead, I would challenge you to think though how you define leadership. Is the greatest leader merely the loudest person in the room, or is it something more? As a leader, how are you managing your relationships with your followers? What changes are you attempting right now?