Rear-Admiral Sir Horatio Nelson, 1758–1805

What is leadership?

by Andrew Hill on June 25, 2011

Leadership has many definitions. Is any one definition more correct than others?

If leadership is what leaders do, then leadership may be described in innumerable ways. Here is a short list of broad, general definitions that might be applied to the work that leaders do.


  • use the current state of morale of others to direct their energies towards the outcome the leader desires
  • persuade, compel, influence or otherwise cause somebody else to do what the leader want them to do.
  • uses his/her authority to direct and coordinate the actions and resources available to others
  • define a goal that enables others to solve a perceived problem
  • shape the habits of others so that their actions fulfil the leader’s goals and they adopt those goals as their own
  • coordinate and guide others to achieve their own predetermined goals

The selection of any one definition at the exclusion of others would depend on its applicability to an leader’s actions within a particular situation or context. The choice of definition may also depend upon who it is making the selection – a leader or authority figure, subordinate or follower, or client or external observer. Each observes and appraises the act of leadership from their own particular standpoints. Observers will also apply their own assumptions and values to the interpretation of what they see.

Which of these definitions ring true to you? Can you suggest other definitions that could be added to this list?

{ 6 comments… read them below or add one }

TutEnduttCato July 14, 2011 at 06:42

thanks for the interesting information


Andrew Hill July 16, 2011 at 23:10

You are welcome.


Heather Davis August 10, 2011 at 11:19

Hi Andrew,
If we are indeed living in what has been described as the ‘post-heroic’ leadership period, it is important to look for definitions of leadership that go beyond the ‘leader’ and towards the ‘work’ of leadership in both process and practice.

The definition of leadership that I am basing my PhD study on his kets de Vries notion that “leaders are in the business of energy management”.


Andrew Hill August 11, 2011 at 00:45

Hi Heather,
I agree that much of what we call leadership is due to the collective actions of people rather than the ability of leaders to influence or control. Edwin Hutchins’ * account of a crisis on a warship entering port is an example of a critical problem solved collectively by the crew, not by the ship’s commander alone. The tendency, by some writers, to separate leadership from organisational management does not seem to reflect the reality of organisational dynamics. So, describing the work of leaders as “energy management” seems appropriate to me, also. In physics, energy and matter are interchangeable. In organisations, leaders are managers of physical and human resources (matter) and the work that they do (energy).
I wish you well with your research; I think you’re onto something worthy of investigation!

* Hutchins, E. (1995). Cognition in the Wild. Cambridge MA: MIT Press.


Bruce Watson June 23, 2012 at 21:12

The problem with the concept of leadership conceptualisations [generally speaking] is that they over look followership. No followers – no leader.

I use the word concept purposefully. Some things just cannot be defined accurately except perhaps in mathematics and physics. I don’t thing leadership can be defined. It may be described conceptually.

Fodor, Jerry A., Concepts: where cognitive science went wrong, Oxford, 1998
Thagard, Paul, Mind: Introduction to cognitive science, MIT,1996

My thesis: Rethinking Organisational Learning, The University of Melbourne, 2000


Andrew Hill June 24, 2012 at 21:20

Thank you, Bruce, for your comment. As Lev Vygotsky said, the meaning of a word is only the most stable part of its sense (Vygotsky, L.S. , 1962, Thought and Language. Cambridge, Massachusetts: The MIT Press, p.146.)
In some ways, leaders, are described in ways that are representative of the other members of their organisations. Those other members might be referred to as “followers”, or not directly acknowledged at all. In such cases, the leader may be understood figuratively to be the organisation. Synecdoche, a figure of speech in which a part may stand for the whole, is enacted in such cases. Consequently, the leader, who is part of the organisation, comes to stand for the whole organisation.


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