What Is Leadership?

Defining Leadership

When we think of successful, high-profile leaders, we think of people such as General Colin Powell, who led the American forces during the Gulf War; or Bill Gates, the Harvard dropout who founded Microsoft and became the richest man in the world. In your own field, you can probably name one or two men or women who are successful leaders—people who seem almost visionary and have an intangible knack for getting things right and inspiring their subordinates.Leaders are able to define a goal, persuade others to assist in achieving that goal, and lead their teams to victory. But what is the definition of leadership?
Leadership is crucial to managers in the business world, but it also plays an important role for coaches, teachers, and parents. There is not one single definition of leadership. Understanding this is the first step toward becoming an effective leader. Some common definitions or beliefs about leadership include the following:

A leader is the appointed head of a group, team, or organization.

A leader is a charismatic person who is able to make good decisions and inspire others to reach a common goal.

Leadership is the power to communicate assertively and inspire others.

Leadership is the ability to influence others.

Not one of the preceding definitions is more correct than any of the others. All of the definitions, however, agree on one common fact: Leadership involves more than one person.

You cannot be a leader without a group of people following your direction and putting their trust in you. Remember, as a leader you have a responsibility to your employees, group, organization, or team to lead fairly and ethically. The title “Boss” or “Manager” does not automatically make you a leader.

To be a good leader, you’ll need to fortify yourself by keeping up with the latest leadership trends, observing other leaders (including leaders in your own chain of command and leaders in the news), and recognizing that your own unique brand of leadership will change as you gain experience.

Tip: Keep up on the latest leadership trends by reading trade publications, watching the news, and observing successful leaders in your own organization.

Leadership Qualities

As defined in the preceding section, a leader is someone who inspires, who makes decisions that affect the organization in a positive way, and who can pull together a diverse team to work toward a common goal. But if all managers are not leaders, what are the qualities that set leaders apart?

Plain English : Charisma is an almost intangible quality that inspires loyalty and great results from subordinates.

Charisma is one quality that is often mistaken as the most important leadership requirement. However, you can attain charismatic leadership more easily if you work to develop the following qualities:


Know your facts and use them. A leader must know the details of the business in order to act for the entire organization.


Don’t micromanage. If your employees feel you are constantly peering over their shoulders, you will create an atmosphere of distrust. Be aware of what team members are working on, but don’t make them feel like “Big Brother” is watching.


A leader will be ineffective if subordinates and superiors do not trust him. The organization soon learns to work around a leader who is untrustworthy or does not keep his word. For example, a leader who tells his employees one thing but does another could be viewed as untrustworthy—even if the difference seems inconsequential to you.


As a leader, your public and private lives should be exemplary. Lead by example. A leader who expects a certain code of conduct from the employees but does not practice the same standards can suffer a loss of respect. A staff that does not respect the leader will suffer a loss in work quality.


Leaders are valued for their decision-making abilities, especially in high-pressure situations. When confronted with a tough decision, fall back on the knowledge mentioned earlier in this list. The best decisions are decisions made with full possession of the facts.


Leaders are chosen to lead a team, group, or entire organization. Often, you’ll be in situations where your staff is not present—for example, high-level organizational meetings. Your assertiveness can and must represent the employees who have put their trust in you.


Be realistic but not fatalistic. Your employees and your superiors may soon lose confidence if they are constantly confronted with pessimism or negativity from you. Situations aren’t always ideal, but as a leader you’re expected to find the best way to turn the situation around. Figure it out and concentrate on the positive.


A leader has a track record of solid decisions and outcomes to point to. If you’ve been managing for some time, try to compile a list of successful decisions and events that you’re responsible for. Not only can you point out these successes to others, but you can use them to build your own confidence in your abilities.


A leader is expected to set goals that will guide an organization in a specific direction. A leader must think broadly and far into the future to set those goals and help the team grow in the right direction.

The appearance of power.   

As “casual Friday” becomes “casual every day” at a growing number of companies, you still must give off the aura of power in your dress, carriage, and surroundings. In a traditional environment, men should wear suits and remain relatively conservative in their choice of tie and shoes. Women, too, should dress tastefully and err on the side of looking conservative. In a casual environment, both men and women should avoid wearing jeans and T-shirts.

Tip The qualities that make a leader are charisma, knowledge, trust, integrity, standards, decisiveness, assertiveness, optimism, results, vision, and the appearance of power.

What a Leader Is Not

A leader is not merely the manager who sits in the corner office, the person who controls quitting time and paychecks, or the person who can hire and fire people. Managers in this day and age must be flexible and willing to adapt to an increasingly more demanding and younger workforce that questions authority.Technology companies have taken the lead in showing that a less autocratic chain of command can produce phenomenal results. Companies such as Bill Gates’s Microsoft boast of campus-like atmospheres where permissiveness is no longer the exception, but the rule.

As a leader, you should avoid the following:


Keeping too close an eye on your staff or handling too many of the responsibilities in your organization yourself. Are you viewed as overbearing?


Steer clear of getting too close to your staff. You are a leader, not your employees’ best friend. It’s hard to criticize or chastise someone you view as a friend, and even harder for that employee to see the criticism as unbiased.


Put your negative emotions aside. We’re all human, but as a leader you must avoid negative outbursts or personal attacks on coworkers.


You are not a supreme deity. Remember that you wouldn’t be a leader without a staff. Avoid autocratic behavior.

A leader is also not synonymous with a manager. Management involves specific business-critical functions such as tending to a budget, developing a product, and generating reports.

However, leadership is an important part of being a manager. A manager who works to improve his or her leadership skills can surpass the status quo to improve the unit’s performance.

Caution : Don’t confuse management with leadership. Management and leadership are not the same thing. Management involves specific organizational functions such as budgeting and producing a product. Leadership is one part of management that deals with how you communicate with the others in your organization.

Becoming a Leader

Some people would have you believe that the best leaders are born that way, and that if you weren’t captain of the preschool debate club, you’re out of luck when it comes to the ability to be a leader. Many of the best leaders, however, will point to the fact that they were “C” students, sometimes as late as college. Usually there was a defining event or person in their lives that gave them the confidence to step out of the pack and start leading it. Now you must fortify yourself with knowledge and start thinking like a leader.