Leadership 101: What, exactly is leadership?

leadership-bannerIt was none other than Machiavelli who suggested that ‘there is nothing more difficult to take in hand, more perilous to conduct, or more uncertain in its success, than to take the lead in a new order of things.’

But what, exactly is leadership? One count I saw had the number of definitions running act around 1500. It’s been suggested that, like the ancient proverb of the blind men attempting to describe an elephant, leadership has many aspects and none of them by itself appears to be an adequate definition. Warren Bennis suggested that it’s like beauty: hard to define, but you know it when you see it!


The understanding of leadership has developed across the centuries. In the middle of the 19th century, the focus was on leaders themselves, with Thomas Carlyle’s claim that the history of what has been accomplished in the world has essentially been the history of ‘the Great Men who have worked here’. It’s possible to trace the roots of the Great Man theory all the way back to Aristotle and his belief that social rank was determined through one’s superior virtues which, in turn, were the result of one’s birth.

Not unnaturally Great Man theory evolved into the Trait era (although the idea of traits is an ancient idea). The basic quest of students of leadership at this time was the attempt to identify which specific traits separated leaders from non-leaders. If people who became leaders were different from everyone else, what made them different?

The theory ran aground somewhat (at least for a while) when it was suggested that there was no consistent set of traits that distinguished leaders from non-leaders and, significantly, that just because someone is a leader in one situation does not make them a leader in another.

Trait theory never quite went away with some scholars suggesting that attempts to discard it have been too sweeping. Even if it is not possible to establish a definitive list of distinguishing marks, there appears to be evidence that there are some traits that make a significant contribution to a leader’s success.

Nonetheless, the focus of study shifted next to leaders’ behaviour. From one study emerged the idea that there were two dimensions to leadership: some leadership had a strong focus on the people it was leading while other leadership focussed more on the task at hand.

However this was not enough as people came to appreciate that no single style of leadership was universally the best style, regardless of the specific situation or environment. An understanding of leadership needed to take account of the situation in which leadership was being exercised.

Studies and theories continued to develop: from transactional leadership to transforming (and transformational) leadership, and from servant leadership authentic leadership.


Even if we’re unlikely to come up with a single, ‘correct’ definition of leadership that excludes all others, it’s worth making some kind of attempt!

For writers like John Maxwell, it appears to be the irreducible minimum:

Leadership is influence. That’s it. Nothing more, nothing less.

It’s simple and quite memorable, but probably leaves too many issues unresolved. Is all influence leadership? Does the influence of a TV advertising campaign qualify as leadership? Is there a difference between intentional and unintentional influence? To be fair, Maxwell has also been somewhat more nuanced in his subsequent claim that ‘the true measure of leadership is influence’.

Maxwell is not alone in highlighting influence as a key component of leadership. For example, Peter Northouse defines leadership as ‘a process whereby an individual influences a group of individuals to achieve a common goal’, while Howard Gardner describes leaders as ‘individuals who significantly influence the thoughts, behaviors and/or feelings of others.’ What’s interesting about this definition is that it allows Gardner to distinguish between direct leaders (think Churchill) and indirect leaders (think Einstein, whose influence was exercised through his ideas): leadership may be exercised by word and/or personal example.

I think these are all helpful, as long as we recognise the caution that has been noted by some scholars who have suggested that since few social interactions don’t involve influence, we’re not saying much when we say that leadership is influence!

David Starling suggests that ‘leadership is the act or task of making an intentional contribution toward the direction and motivation of a group in the framing and pursuit of a common purpose.’ He argues that good leadership is not an end in itself, but points beyond itself and promotes interests that go beyond its own.

It’s worth noting how his definition highlights both the element of intentionality and the idea of a commonly share goal towards which a group is moving.


Some of the writers I have mentioned are Christians, but it’s worth taking time to reflect on what makes Christian leadership Christian?

Carl Trueman suggests that trends in the culture have affected how the evangelical church has understood leadership. While accepting that Christian leaders can learn from wider aspects of leadership practice, he cautions that Scripture must determine Christian notions of leadership.

Albert Mohler, a fairly powerful leader himself, suggests that while an obsession with leadership in the contemporary church may be both necessary and understandable, this obsessive interest has nonetheless ‘served to distract the church from the nature of leadership as revealed in Scripture’, with Christians tending to draw lessons from various spheres of secular leadership rather than looking to the Bible.

James Lawrence calls for Christian leadership with these distinctives:

  1. It is founded in relationship with God as Trinity;
  2. It is rooted in the Bible and directed by the Spirit;
  3. It is marked by servanthood;
  4. It is shaped by the cross and resurrection;
  5. It is sustained by prayer;
  6. It is lived out personally as part of the community of the church.

‘Leadership,’ he says, ‘is a key factor in the spread of the gospel.’


There have been voices of caution both within the Church and more widely. Barbara Kellerman, a leadership insider who might be running the risk of biting the hand that feed her, critiques the leadership industry’s ‘leader-centrism’ with its implication that those who don’t lead don’t amount to much. It is not enough to focus only on the leader at a time when other factors, such as the rise of the follower, have gained significance, and leaders have less power than previously. In fact, she goes as far as to accuse the leadership industry of being ‘self-satisfied, self-perpertuting and poorly policed’!

David Starling, like Trueman and Mohler, warns about the tendency to swallow the secular concepts of leadership. He notes that for all the talk of ‘leadership’ in Christian circles, there are surprisingly few explicit mentions of the terms leader and leadership in the biblical text. However it is not that there are no leaders or that there are no other images associated with leadership tasks.


After all that, how should we define it?

I think that reaching a definition requires us to consider the relationship between the leader and the followers, the nature and means of the leader’s influence, and the establishment of the goal for which leadership is exercised.

A leader is someone who is intentionally influencing a group of people towards an agreed and beneficial goal: Christian leadership means doing that ‘Christianly’!


So what do you think? Here are a few questions to reflect on:

  • How important is leadership? Is it possible to either overstate or understate its importance?
  • What factors need to be considered in understanding what leadership is and how it is defined?
  • How might you define leadership?

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