Are You Looking for an “Actionable” Definition of Leadership?

Screen Shot 2015-09-01 at 11.43.03 AMEvery executive, consultant, graduate educator, and employee has his or her own definition of leadership. Some of those definitions, while they seem to make good sense, are too narrow and basic. They are not practical nor are they accurate. They fail to capture the complexity of the leader and leadership. Other definitions are laced with metaphors and “secret knowledge.” These definitions use impressive verbiage, employ the language of the organizational insider, but leave the reader knowing nothing more about how to actually lead. Additionally, many definitions talk about leadership as an activity, that is, something people “do.” There is a complete absence of words that describe the importance of the person behind the work of leadership. So, while you might be expecting my own definition, I am going to direct you to a definition that I have come to appreciate and value the more I study, teach, and consult around leadership. This definition captures the essence of who a leader is, what a leader does, and the outcome(s) of leadership. This comes from Peter Northouse (2016) in his excellent text, Leadership: Theory and Practice (7th ed.). Northouse states it this way:

Leadership is a process whereby an individual influences a group of individuals to achieve a common goal.

At first blush, the definition is not flashy. In fact, it is flat-out boring. Many, perhaps most, would pass right by it looking for more power and prestige. However, I promise you, Northouse has nailed the essence of leader identity and leadership practice. To make this definition actionable, let me break it down into its separate components.

1. Leadership is a process:

This is great news for all of us. Leadership is not about any natural disposition or personal “gift” that one possesses when emerging from the womb. Rather, we learn to lead. We acquire the tools, knowledge, and experience that allow us to facilitate a process.

Actions to Implement:

If you want to lead then put yourself in a position where you will learn to lead. Developing leadership experience, competency, and capacity is an intentional and conscious decision that requires time, discipline, and a diversity of experiences. The learning cannot be rushed, expedited, or otherwise accelerated. There is no magic dust, no single book, no one corporate CEO, and no one mentor who will wave the magic leadership wand over you and make it official. There are no shortcuts when it comes to learning to lead. This is but one reason why there are so few effective leaders in our organizations: too many want the shortcuts…to discover that leadership holy grail…that will with certainty advance their rise to visible leadership. In the end, these individuals can do massive damage to people and organizations because, while dressed with the garb and title of leadership, they are hollow, often narcissistic, and bring to real and lasting solutions to the work of people, teams, and organizations.

2. Whereby an individual influences:

OK, this is the heartbeat of Northouse’s definition. A leader is someone who influences. Influence is about the ability to persuade, to bring someone along; it is about galvanizing commitment. If someone is going to influence me they have to be credible, knowledgeable, likable, and be able to describe where we are going and how I could make a contribution to that process. Leaders who influence by using the power that comes from their title or by using coercion fail to effectively influence (see here French & Raven’s (1959) research noted below). Ultimately, what makes influence powerful is the competency, character, and trust established by the leader.

Actions to Implement:

Spend time thinking about the impact of your leadership by looking at the way you influence others. Do you tend to tell, command, or direct people to move toward goals or objectives, or, do you provide information, discuss, collaborate, or engage in persuasion in a way that builds commitment? If you are unclear, ask 5 to 7 people who know and work with you to provide objective feedback about the “net out” of your influence.

3. A group of individuals:

Leaders require followers and followers need leaders. A leader’s team, group of direct reports, or a collection of people across functions and positions are the people a leader works with to get the work of the organization done. Whether large or small, this group represents people with diverse skills and personalities. Effective leaders know their people, what they need to thrive, and how to support their engagement moving forward. More importantly, leaders work hard to support and maintain the dignity and well-being of their teams.

Actions to Implement:

If there was ever an argument for the leader to gather info on the learning styles, behavioral styles, work styles, temperaments, skillsets, and competency portfolios of their team members, this would be it. If you are in a leadership position and would benefit from additional knowledge about your people, begin to take steps to secure that information using assessments and conversations around skills, strengths, and professional development strategies. The more you know about your team, the more you will be able to work with them effectively by giving them what they need to do their best work. If you see this as a waste of your time and energy, your people will sense it. You may be in the wrong position.

4. To achieve a common goal:

This is why leaders lead, right? They move the work of the organization forward through, with, and alongside their teams. Goals have to be clear and supported by the rationale and logic of the leader and other key decision makers. The pathway toward those goals must be recognizable and any barriers that impede the progress of the team must be addressed and resolved by the leader (see the Path-Goal approach to leadership). When goals are understood and supported by all members, achieving those goals takes on its own momentum. Additionally, leaders are tasked with the responsibility of providing all the necessary resources team members might require in order to accelerate toward goals.

Actions to Implement:

Be sure the goals of the team and the pathway toward those goals are crystal clear. Secure the resources necessary that will allow your team to move toward the goals/objectives. When issues and/or barriers emerge, take action to address those barriers in way that will not distract the team’s performance. Continually work with your team directly as well as behind the scenes to ensure the team has the support it needs accomplish its work.


French, J. R. P., & Raven, B. (1959). The bases of social power. In D. P. Cartwright (Ed), Studies in Social Power. Ann Arbor, MI: Institute for Social Research, University of Michigan, pp. 150-167.

Northhouse, P. (2016). Leadership: Theory and practice (7th ed.). Los Angeles: Sage.

« Back to Main Blog