For regular updates on Thinkers50 news, ideas and events, subscribe to our monthly newsletter:

* indicates required

Defining Leadership

By Stuart Crainer and Des Dearlove

First things first. Mention the word leadership in a classroom or in conversation in a suitably convivial bar and people always become hard-boiled, demanding a definition of what you mean by leadership. Mention marketing or strategy or the meaning of life and they are less demanding. But, with leadership, definitions are required.

This thirst for defining leadership as a term is, in itself, interesting. Leadership perplexes us. Its ambiguity worries us. And yet, we know it when we experience it; good leadership (and bad leadership) are palpable. We know leadership when it has an impact on us. We feel that it should be black and white, easily defined and understood. That it isn’t and cannot be is the first frustration of leadership. There are many others.

Writing this book, we found ourselves in a conference call with three leadership academics at one of the world’s leading business schools. They were just about to set up a new leadership center which was well endowed with funding from a successful business leader. They talked for a while. And then they talked some more. Eventually, we asked if there was a working definition of leadership which they used. What did they mean when they talked about leadership? Silence. More silence. ‘Not exactly,’ said the director of the new center with an entertaining degree of awkwardness.

So, though we thirst for a neat and tidy definition of what leadership is, such definitions are thin on the ground. Little wonder perhaps that researchers at the UK’s Reading University are examining the brains of business, military and other leaders to better understand what makes them effective leaders.

When we spoke with Gianpiero Petriglieri of the French business school INSEAD, one of the most original thinkers on the subject these days, we inevitably got round to his definition of leadership.

‘I take issue with this idea of leadership as the ability to get others to do things that they wouldn’t otherwise have done. That’s a traditional definition,’ he bridled. And I think we’d be a lot better off with a definition of leadership as having the courage, commitment, ability and the trust to articulate, embody and help realize the story of possibility – for a group of people, at a point in time. That is closer to what leaders really do. First you need to have the courage to do something. You need commitment. You can’t just do it for a day or two. You do need some skills, but you also need to be entrusted. It is something that comes from within and is also grounded in some group at a certain point in time. If you want to be “a leader” you are no one’s leader.

Gianpiero’s pointed observations ring true. When it comes to understanding leadership, we have moved from directive leadership, and leadership derived from authority and power, to a greater belief in the interactive nature of leadership and leadership by consent. ‘I define leadership as leaders inducing followers to act for certain goals that represent the values and motivations – the wants and needs, the aspirations and expectations – of both leaders and followers,’ wrote the leadership theorist, James McGregor Burns. Leadership is – fashionably perhaps – as inclusive as never before. We practice leadership with people rather than inflicting leadership on them.

Our definition and understanding of leadership now stretches beyond notions of hierarchy, job titles and being told to do something. Our view of leadership is more broad ranging. Leadership is not a rarity. We are willing to accept that it takes leadership to make a busy restaurant kitchen work efficiently, to enable a sports team to perform at its best or for a medical operation to be successfully carried out.

‘Leadership means vision, cheerleading, enthusiasm, love, trust, verve, passion, obsession, consistency, the use of symbols, paying attention as illustrated by the content of one’s calendar, out-and-out drama (and the management thereof), creating heroes at all levels, coaching, effectively wandering around, and numerous other things. Leadership must be present at all levels of the organization,’ argued Tom Peters and Nancy Austin in A Passion for Excellence.

‘Every teacher in a classroom is a leader,’ Dame Mary Marsh told us – and she has worked as a headteacher as well as leading major charitable organizations. ‘Leadership is not just at the top, it’s everywhere. I don’t think we’re good at acknowledging that, and recognizing where people are developing their leadership capacity – at home, in the family, in schools and colleges, in the community and all parts of organizations.’

Yet, while the net of leadership has widened, many of the institutions and systems of traditional notions of leadership continue. It is depressingly true, for example, that few women manage to reach the highest levels of organizations. Only 12.5 percent of the directors of FTSE-100 companies are women. There are a host of similarly dismal stats available.

Look around, and there are still ornate organizational charts which map out labyrinthine corporate hierarchies. There are still job titles and uniforms which suggest someone should be a leader. It is a suggestion which many relish.

We still have a long way to go in our understanding of leadership.

‘I see leadership as our version of the dark ages. In the sixteenth century whenever we didn’t understand something – an earthquake or crops failing or disease – we would ascribe it to God. But then came the Enlightenment and we discovered new areas of physics and chemistry, so we could offer different explanations for earthquakes and crop failures,’ lamented Jim Collins, author of Good to Great, when we spoke. ‘In the twentieth and twenty-first century, when we’re looking at the social world, the man-made world, we are still in the dark ages. This is shown by our predilection for looking for leadership answers. Leadership is to the twentieth century what God was to the sixteenth century. That doesn’t mean you have to become an atheist. But if you stop looking for answers that are always either God or leadership you will find other underlying factors.’

Part of the problem is that there is a generously proportioned mythology around leadership. Control, direction and manipulation are the resonant leadership chorus. The preoccupation of decades has been on identifying the characteristics of successful leaders. This, it was thought, would unlock leadership’s holy grail. It is an impossible task. Leadership is highly individual. There was only one Steve Jobs. Emulation is pointless and charisma a smokescreen.

Leadership is much more multifaceted and fraught than was once thought. And it is much more open. There is – or should be – nothing elitist about leadership. It is open to all. Not everyone has the will to lead but, for those with the desire, leadership is there, like a jewel in the snow, ready to be picked up, cherished and eventually passed on.


The full interview with Jim Collins can be found in our book Leadership: Organizational Success through Leadership (McGraw Hill, 2013). Our interview with Gianpiero Petriglieri is available at He is worth following on Twitter: @gpetriglieri.

You may also like
Don't Miss a Thing