There is no shortage of ways to describe or define leadership. Typing the word leadership into a Google search bar results in over 785 million responses. Of the various definitions, leadership tends to fall into one of three camps:
Leadership-as-influence views leadership as a mechanism to accomplish a goal or create change. Leadership, when thought of in the context of influence, is about intentionally shaping the beliefs, desires, and priorities of others. Individuals who wield significant power and authority or hold a formal position can strategically utilize their influence for goal achievement. This shaping of beliefs, desires, and priorities is not tied to a value. Rather, the influence can be for what we might consider good or bad ends. Influence may take the form of inspiration. Or influence could be rooted in cultivating fear.
Leadership is also defined as a process. In this context, leadership can be thought of as an activity. “Mobilizing” is the process of choice for many who have formally explored leadership as an academic discipline. James MacGregor Burns, a forefather of leadership as a field-of-study initiated this idea of leadership-as-process: “Leadership is the reciprocal process of mobilizing, by persons with certain motives and values…in order to realize goals independently or mutually held by both leaders and followers.”
Ronald Heifetz, of the Harvard Kennedy School and developer of the adaptive leadership framework recognized mobilizing in a leadership context as “motivating, organizing, orienting, and focusing attention.” Others have described leadership as the process of facilitating, guiding, and managing change. Leadership-as-process is not reliant less on position or authority and more on the relationships between leader and follower.
Leadership-as-outcome defines leadership by what occurs following the leadership action. Leadership in this context is dependent on the end result. Richard Boyatzis and Annie McKee detail that leadership should build “a sense of community and create a climate that enables people to tap into passion, energy, and a desire to move together in a positive direction.”
Most leadership definitions fall into one of the three camps:
Some leadership definitions, though, try to include all three components. Peter Northouse defined leadership as a “process whereby an individual influences a group of individuals to achieve a common goal”. In his understanding, leadership is a process in which influencing others is paramount. This influencing is for a specific end—the outcome. In this case leadership actions are designed to achieve a specific outcome—a common goal.
Although these three camps are where the majority of leadership definitions dwell, others have intentionally strayed away from those classifications. Dennis Roberts suggested leadership is simply Conviction in Action. “The reason I propose so simple a notion is to provide a way to start with agreement rather than hair-splitting critique over many words”. Rather than focus energy on the leadership-definition dialogue, Roberts preferred to explore specific assumptions of leadership through the lens of Conviction in Action.
Among these is the idea that leadership is inclusive – Conviction in Action allows for those in positions-of-influence and formal leadership roles as well as those who do not wield formal authority to engage in leadership. Leadership involves inner work – Conviction in Action is predicated on leaders engaging in meaningful self-reflection to uncover their vision and values. And leadership results in action. Conviction in Action is not solely about internal discovery though contemplation, but is action-oriented.
With over 785 million responses, leadership is understood in many diverse and distinct ways.
How do you define leadership—is it by influence, process, or outcomes--or maybe a combination of the three? Or do you define it another way?
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