What is Leadership?


Who exactly is a leader and how are they different from being a manager or a boss? I have seen many many definitions of leadership out there, and from every single book I have read and it usually goes like this:

A Leader is someone who has followers” from Nine Lies About Work.

or “Leadership is something you do, not something you are” from McKinsey

or “Leadership is the capacity to translate vision into Reality” from Warren Bennis

or “Leadership is a process of social influence, which maximizes the efforts of others, towards the achievement of a goal” from Forbes

or “Leadership is the quality, ability, or process of influencing and guiding others to achieve a common goal

Each definition is as problematic as any other I have seen. It makes Leadership this mystical, subjective, and hard-to-define characteristic that(which if it is to be believed) has spawned a 14 billion industry in leadership development.

Surprisingly, leadership is not particularly hard to define at the heart of it. Let’s start with some easy definitions.

A manager is responsible for the day-to-day operations of a team or department, ensuring that tasks are completed on time, and that resources are being used efficiently. They are often responsible for setting performance goals, monitoring progress, and providing feedback to their team members.

A boss, on the other hand, is simply someone who has power and authority over others, often by virtue of their position in an organization. They may or may not have leadership skills, and may or may not inspire their team to achieve great things.

In contrast, a leader is someone who has a clear vision of a future state that others cannot see, and who acts based on a clear set of values (that they will not compromise) as they work toward that vision.

A Visionary

A leader clearly foresees a yet-to-be-known or visualized future that others simply haven’t really thought about or understood at all. The leader can paint a vivid picture of that future making it a much superior and desirable alternative to the current state of affairs.

Martin Luther King, Nelson Mandela, Gandhi, and countless transformational historical figures imagined a better world that could exist and which could not be conceived by others at that time. By the very act of imagining that world, they could then share, communicate, and as a result inspire countless others around them that then lead to action and change.

When JFK said “We chose to go to the moon” he articulated a vision and that was inconceivable to most people. Not only did he outline the vision he also specified why that matters in his famous speech at Rice University.

We set sail on this new sea because there is new knowledge to be gained, and new rights to be won, and they must be won and used for the progress of all people. […]  I do say that space can be explored and mastered without feeding the fires of war, without repeating the mistakes that man has made in extending his writ around this globe of ours. […] There is no strife, no prejudice, no national conflict in outer space as yet. Its hazards are hostile to us all. Its conquest deserves the best of all mankind, and its opportunity for peaceful cooperation may never come again.

He believed in the vision to have mankind conquer space so that it can rewrite humankind’s history of war and strife as we explore a new frontier.

It is hard to not get inspired by such a vision.

Uncompromising set of Values to accompany that vision

Steve Jobs imagined a world where the Personal Computer is ubiquitous. But he didn’t just imagine that future but was brave enough to think differently and to make it not only accessible but intuitive and fun. Here is an example of not only articulating a vision but also the values that accompany that vision. Steve Jobs didn’t say we will make boring dull, cheap computers but rather fun, well-designed computers that are just cool. For example “The Apple Marketing Philosophy” from 1977 states that there should be “empathy” toward understanding the needs of a customer, “Focus” to eliminate the unimportant, and “impute” to assign value to something based on how it is presented. Those values are unique and challenge the status quo.

Martin Luther King simply didn’t work toward a more equitable society but he did so using the cornerstone of non-violence which made his dream that ” my children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.” much more powerful.

Values accompanying such a future make it all the easier to understand and fall in love with the vision.

When there are no values and no scruples toward achieving a vision, then that person becomes a gangster instead of a leader.

Are vision and values sufficient for leadership? What about the myriad of other qualities that everyone else describes? How about execution, how about people skills like empathy, trust, and so on?

JFK died before his vision was realized posthumously in 1969 by the Apollo 11 lander. Nelson Mandela spent most of his years inside a prison cell. It is easy to mix execution, management, organization, and other skills into leadership, but not only are they not required, but they also don’t even define the core of leadership.

I hope to talk about how these principles of leadership could be used by anyone in an organization with varying levels of experience in a future post.

Meanwhile here’s my pithy leadership definition:

A leader is someone who acts according to his core values to realize a new bold future that everyone cannot see yet”

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