Hundreds of definitions of leadership and leading have been formulated, including those by such greats as Peter Drucker. Some, though, are just not right. What does true leadership actually mean, and which definitions are useable?
Leadership comes in two forms: leading others and leading yourself. Most often, however, we refer to it in the first of these senses: leadership as a lead-giving. But it can also mean lead-taking, or leading yourself. The big difference? Lead-giving requires followers: a leader can only give leadership if he or she has people to give it to. Leadership in this sense encompasses all activities involved in directing those followers, who may be either within the organization or outside it. The fact that there are so many different definitions of leadership and leading is all down to the many different perspectives on the topic. Yet all have one thing in common: they omit the adjective needed to make the definition possible. And it is precisely that absence which renders many definitions incorrect, and others only partially correct. One good example is the widely used definition first formulated by Peter Drucker (2017), one of the best known and most important leadership professors of all time:
“Management is doing things right; leadership is doing the right things.”
A Google search for this quote yields no fewer than 122 million hits. But what makes this definition, inspiring as it may be, incorrect? The answer is actually very simple. Using this description, you define people – in extremis even the likes of Stalin or Hitler, although there also many other examples – as either:
- not leaders; or,
- leaders, in which case they automatically “do the right things”.
Stalin and Hitler led entire nations in their day. They led large and complex organizations, they led multiple management teams – many also large and complex – and, most importantly, they had millions of followers. It is therefore difficult to argue that they were not leaders. But, of course, it is equally hard to maintain that they “did the right things”. Had Drucker written – probably as he really intended – “Good management is doing things right [naturally, the same also applies to a good definition of management], good leadership is doing the right things,” then his definition would have been correct. To define leadership properly, then, everything revolves around the adjective you use!
Definitions of leadership
To cut a long story short, there are many possible definitions of leadership. Here are a couple of examples.
Passionate leadership: leadership aimed at promoting employee enthusiasm, a positive attitude characterized by vitality, dedication and absorption.
Inspirational leadership: leadership aimed at inspiring employees.
But definitions of this kind, too, often create misconceptions. After all, they focus not on the behaviour of the leader, but on the outcome. Not on his or her perceived charisma or observed actions, but on how these affect his or her followers. In other words, an inspiring manager is only inspiring when they inspire their followers. And a passionate manager is only passionate when they impassion their followers. Setting, situation and timing are also crucial, since styles of leadership often need to be adjusted in order to continue to comply with the definition adopted. Because circumstances can change, excellent leadership requires a good command of multiple leadership styles.
Leadership in literature
Definitions of leadership widely used in management science include the following.
Transactional leadership: a process of exchange (a transaction) between manager and employee, involving contingent rewards and the use of management by exception.
Whereas transactional management encourages employees to perform work on the basis of extrinsic motivation, transformational management focuses more on their intrinsic motivation.
Transformational leadership: a style of leadership which encourages followers to transcend their own self-interest by adjusting their principles, ideals, interests and values and by motivating them to perform better than initially expected. This style emphasizes the ability of leaders to challenge and inspire followers to achieve organizational goals.
Autocratic leadership: a style of leadership aimed at enhancing the leader’s position of power and employees’ dependency by, for example, the use of micro-management, withholding resources and support from followers and maintaining a culture of distrust.
In addition to the transactional, transformational and autocratic styles, the laissez-faire style of management is also mentioned frequently.
Laissez-faire leadership: a style of leadership characterized by a passive attitude on the part of leaders and the lack of any sense of responsibility when this is required of them.
An overview of various styles of leadership and sources describing them can be found in, for example, the article Leadership theories and the concept of work engagement – Creating a conceptual framework for management implications and research, which is cited frequently in scientific papers, theses, dissertations and other publications (Blomme & Kodden, 2015).
The ultimate form of true leadership
But what is the ultimate form of true leadership? In my view, it is letting others lead! That is, giving talented and motivated professionals the space they need, within a framework of safeness and defined results, to take the lead themselves in pursuing those results (Kodden, 2017; Kodden & Roelofs, 2019; Kodden & Van Ingen, 2019). For the managers of such professionals, this form is not only the most effective, it also the most difficult. After all, it constantly challenges them to keep their triggers, their fears and their egos under control, not to mention any excess of empathy they may have that at the end sabotages themselves and their organisation. Success is all about leadership. True leadership to be correctly.
By: Bas Kodden
Executive MBA director Nyenrode Business Universiteit
Blomme, R. J., & Kodden, B. (2015). Leadership theories and the concept of work engagement: Creating a conceptual framework for management implications and research. Journal of Management & Organization, 21(02), 125-144.
Drucker, P. (2007). The Effective Executive. London: Routledge.
Kodden, B. (2016). Be a HERO. How to bring out leadership in Everyone. Bernard Daniel Press.
Kodden, B., & van Ingen, R. (2019). Knowledge Productivity in the 2020s: Time for a New E/RA A Research Study on the Impact of Organizational Design and Employee Engagement on the Knowledge Productivity of Service Firms. Journal of Applied Business and Economics, 21(4).
Kodden, B., & Roelofs, J. (2019). Psychological Contract as a Mediator of the Leadership-Turnover Intentions Relationship. Journal of Organizational Psychology, 19(2).