10 May 2010

What is Leadership?

Discussions regarding leadership and the qualities, traits and skills you must possess to be a leaders have existed for thousands of years. Place 15 people in a training room and ask them to discuss ‘What is Leadership?’ and you can end up with hundreds of responses, all of them being right for the person that thought of it. Here are a few examples:

‘Managers are people who do things right, while leaders are people who do the right thing.’ Warren Bennis, Ph.D  

‘The key to successful leadership today is influence, not authority.’ Ken Blanchard  

‘When the effective leader is finished with his work, the people say it happened naturally.’ Lao Tse  

‘A leader is one who knows the way, goes the way, and shows the way.’ John C. Maxwell  

‘One measure of leadership is the caliber of people who choose to follow you.’ Dennis A. Peer  

‘Leadership is the lifting of a man’s vision to higher sights, the raising of a man’s performance to a higher standard, the building of a man’s personality beyond normal limitations. Wishing won’t make it so; doing will’ Peter. F. Drucker      

The problem in defining leadership is that our ideas on leadership are shaped by a variety of beliefs, culture, expertise and experience. Our definition is also coloured by who we have been led by and the positive / negative behaviours they demonstrated. More than one leader can trace their leadership style to an early influence ie “I want to be just like……” or “I never want to be like……”. Both positive and negative examples of leadership are powerful drivers for shaping leadership expectations.   Further, leadership requirements can change depending on the situation that a leader is placed in. The skills required to lead a not-for-profit organisation are different to those required to lead a corporate or military organisation. Winston Churchill is an example of a leader who led his country brilliantly during World War II, but was not as successful in leading his country in peace.    

So how can we try to simplify the leadership debate? I would put forward that leadership is about influencing others. Paraphrasing some of the leadership quotes presented above, leadership is getting others to willingly assist you in completing a task / venture that you have set. You will notice that I have used to the word ‘assist’ when completing a task, as I believe that a leader needs to be involved in the task they set. Whether that involvement is clearly defining the task, providing encouragement or showing people how to do something, it is imperative that a leader ‘walk’s the talk’ and is involved. It may not be necessary to complete every step of a task side-by-side with the people you are influencing, but a key component of influence is having the respect of the people you are influencing and ensuring they do not feel taken advantage of.  

A further key aspect of leadership is action. The best leadership intentions will count for very little if no action takes place. If leadership is defined as influence, then that influence must be used for a purpose. The best leaders are recognised hand in hand for two things; the leadership style in which they influenced others and what their leadership achieved. Mahatma Ghandi, Martin Luther King, Nelson Mandela, Abraham Lincoln, Winston Churchill, Adolf Hitler – leaders that are instantly recognised for their leadership style as well as their actions.  

I might be criticised for including the last leader in the previous paragraph, but he highlights an additional requirement of leadership and an adjustment to the definition of leadership. Leadership influence can be positive as well as negative, and Adolf Hitler highlights that example. To be a respected leader, the influence that is exerted over others must be positive and result in a  positive outcome.  

‘Leadership is positive influence that results in positive outcomes.’  

As already stated, leadership is shaped by a variety of beliefs, culture, expertise and experience. That being said, if leaders applied this definition as their benchmark for leadership success and measured themselves against its expectations, perhaps more would deliver positive results.

Want to develop the leadership ability within your business? Michael Peiniger is a leadership and team development specialist who helps CEO’s and heads of business ‘develop leaders’ within their organisations. As a specialist facilitator working with the top businesses in the country, he can provide your managers, supervisors and aspiring leaders with the skills, knowledge, behaviour traits and attitudes that will make them successful in your business. To discuss your leadership needs, call Michael on 0409 627 270, email

michael@kameleons.com.au or hit the link below. You can reach him at or hit the link below.