The Problem with Defining Leadership

Leadership in Action

The Problem with Defining Leadership

Defining leadership is difficult. It’s kind of like defining love, friendship, or goodness. And similarly, there are almost as many definitions as there are people you may ask. One major problem with defining leadership is the term can refer to a position or a person. The function of a person in charge of a group or company is typically called the leader. However, leadership also refers to the way in which a person oversees others. This second use of the word is what we’re attempting to define.

I’ve recently spent some time thinking through the definition of leadership. The good news is I think I’d landed on a definition I like. But before I share my definition, I’d like to take some time to explain the problems with defining leadership.

Definitions of Leadership

“Leadership is an influence relationship among leaders and followers who intend real changes that reflect their mutual purposes.” –Joseph Rost

“Managers deal with complexity while leaders deal with change.” – John Kotter

“Leadership is influence, nothing more, nothing less.” – John Maxwell

“The greatest leader is not necessarily the one who does the greatest things. He is the one that gets the people to do the greatest things.” (Ronald Reagan)

“Leadership is the activity of influencing people to strive willingly for group objectives.” – George R. Terry 

“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

Leadership as Influence Leadership as influence

I actually grew up reading leadership books by John Maxwell. So, his definition of leadership as influence is the one I’m most
familiar with. There are a few strengths to this definition. First, it’s simple and easy to remember. Second, the definition is wide enough that anyone can become a leader. Anyone can gain and earn influence within their situation in order to influence outcomes. Using this definition, those who have influence within their families, classes, work, or anywhere can consider themselves a leader.

However, a few years ago I began a doctoral program focused on leadership and I was presented a serious ethical dilemma. This definition doesn’t solve the Hitler problem.

The Hitler Problem

Was Hitler one of the greatest leaders who ever lived? I know the very nature of this question is terrible, sensitive, and offensive- but it’s offense is the exact reason I’m asking. Most leadership definitions are ethically neutral, allowing room for the loudest voice and largest presence to be defined as the best leader. Most leadership definitions would acknowledge that Adolf Hitler was one of the most effective leaders who ever lived.

As I was defending my final papers I got in an argument with one of my professors about this exact topic. She argued that effective leadership is neutral, a power that can be used for good or evil. In her eyes, results speak to leadership effectiveness.

But that’s not good enough for me. We have to do better.

The Moral Responsibility of Leadership

Many career paths have moral responsibility written into their definition. For example, the responsibility of doctors, lawyers, and counselors isn’t neutral. Doctors aren’t professionals who cut people and hand out drugs. Lawyers aren’t professionals who earn as much money as possible representing people in court and handling complex paperwork. Counselors aren’t known as Professionals who get paid to sit and listen. Each of these careers have an ethical responsibility written into the very fabric of their professional responsibility. They must first do no harm and are responsible to help. There’s an ethical component to their position.

I feel we have an ethical responsibility to ask more of any person we call leader. This doesn’t mean they’re called to moral perfection- far from it. But they must understand the impact of their actions.

Bad Church LeadershipThe Hitler Problem

A few months ago my wife and became obsessed with a podcast called The Rise and Fall of Mars Hill. It chronicles the fast rise of one of America’s largest churches, along with its charismatic pastor Mark Driscoll. The lead pastor was a larger than life leader who’s passion catapulted his church into worldwide fame. However, over time it became clear that he used  shame, fear, and power to silence his critics and run over anyone who got in his way. For him- leadership was influence, nothing more, nothing less. But his leadership hurt people.

My wife and I listened to each episode with tears in our eyes as the experiences of Mars Hill hit too close to home. We knew many friends and family whose experience in the church mirrored that of Mars Hill. They tried to stay on the proverbial bus, but ended up getting run over and left behind. Church leadership must be more than merely influence. Leaders must be called to consider their impact.

The next section will outline my wandering brainstorms on the topic.

Leadership Reflections

Attempt #1: Leadership is an influence relationship attempting change with a responsibility to balance the goals of all stakeholders.

I like that the idea that leadership is an influence relationship is included in this definition. There are two important points there- “attempted” and “change”. Is a leader only judged on whether or not they’re successful? My mind moves to famous business leaders like Elon Musk who has successfully accomplished a lot. I want to say that success is a caveat to leadership. However, I don’t think that’s essential. When it comes to everyday leadership, the individual who “attempts” change with others is just as honorable a leader as those who successfully accomplish big and famous projects. 

I also use the word “change”. Some definitions have leaders attempting to reach goals. The challenge with reaching goals is- it sets up whether or not the leader actually achieves that goal as a measure of success. This definition includes attempting change. In the end, all leadership is attempting change in one form or another. It’s moving people or a culture, or a project from one state to another. 

My major issue with this definition is the last part. Something’s not right about it. A leader is called to balance the needs of stakeholders, but this doesn’t fully capture the car necessary for responsible leadership. 

Attempt #2: Leadership is attempting change with others, while balancing the needs of everyone involved.

Attempt #3: Leadership is initiating change with others, while balancing the needs of everyone involved.

Initiating Change shows proactive action. However, it’s still not offering any sort of ethical direction to that action. The benefit of including “everyone involved” is a leader’s action may not only impact direct stakeholders. For example, if I live in a neighborhood and consider a trash-dumping rule that will keep our neighborhood from becoming too trash-filled-that may be good for our neighborhood. BUT, IF my neighborhood start dumping their trash into the neighborhood next door, then that’s not good. For a more realistic example, we can think about tax laws, or policies that impact equity like voting, housing, and city budgets. A leader must consider how their activities impact direct stakeholders and anyone else. 

Confused Leadership Dog
Attempt #4: 
Leadership is initiating change with others while considering its impact.

Attempt #5: Leadership is initiating change with others to achieve a brighter future.

I like the aspirational aspect of this definition. It insinuates including others and offers an ethical and aspirational direction. 

Attempt #6: Leadership is about inspiring others to build a better future.

Attempt #7: Leadership is an influence relationship where action is taken to build a better future with awareness of the impact of those actions.

Attempt #8: Leadership is involving others toward building a better future, while carrying the responsibility of impact of your actions.

Attempt #9: Leadership is involving others in building a better future, with responsibility for the impact of your actions.

But can’t “involving others” still include running over them? How does one define a “better future”. Also, I may feel the responsibility of my actions, but will do whatever it takes to build the better future I see in my mind. 

Attempt #10: Leadership is involving others in building a better future, with care regarding the impact of its actions.

That’s it- that’s the winner. I think including “care” is the X-Factor. Leaders should care about the impact of their activity- on their followers, themselves, and anyone and everyone in general. Care is the secret sauce. Care may move a person to lead and initiate change. Care causes a person to involve others in painting a picture of a better future. And care helps a leader pause and pay attention to the impact of their activity. 

Defining Leadership is Important

How would you define leadership? Do you consider it an ethically neutral activity? I hope this discussion helped you to think through the impact of your definition. I feel like we set the bar to low for leadership, making room for the most rich, famous, or biggest bully to be known as the best leaders of our time. As you consider your own definition for leadership, I hope you’ll aim a little higher as well. If you have a definition you like, I’d love to hear it. Please leave your definition in the comments below.