Leadership is the key to personal and corporate success. Nothing, I mean nothing, succeeds without a successful leader. Without personal leadership, individuals fail to achieve their potential. Without good leadership, families, communities, and nations fail. The late Dr. Lee Roberson was right when he said, “Everything rises or falls on leadership.”

Since everything hinges on leadership, an accurate definition is crucial. How can a person hit any target unless it is well defined?


First, what leadership is not

Leadership is not a position, a title or seniority. When many people talk about leadership, they mean the most senior people in a company or organization. But true leadership has nothing to do with position or title. You can be a leader without a title or position.

Leadership is not centered around personality. Leaders are not necessarily tall, charismatic, strong, handsome individuals.

Leadership is different from management. Management legend, Peter F. Drucker gave the best distinction between leadership and management that I’ve seen. “Management is doing things right; leadership is doing the right things.” Leaders influence and lead people. Managers manage; they hire, fire, coordinate, plan, measure, and monitor things.

Popular Definitions of Leadership

Warren Bennis and Burt Nanus in their book, Leaders: Strategies for taking charge, say that they discovered more than 850 different definitions of leadership! No wonder many people still wonder what leadership really is.

Let’s look at some definitions that have been put forth by some great business leaders and thinkers.

 “The only definition of a leader is someone who has followers.” Peter Drucker

“Leadership is the process of persuasion or example by which an individual (or leadership team) induces a group to pursue objectives held by the leader or shared by the leader and his or her followers.” John W. Gardner.

“Leadership is the capacity to translate vision into reality.”  Warren Bennis.

“Leadership is the capacity and will to rally men and women to a common purpose, and the character which inspires confidence.” – Bernard Montgomery

“Leadership may be defined as that quality that inspires sufficient confidence in subordinates as to be willing to accept his views and carry out his commands.” – Fleet Admiral Nimitz

“A leader is a man who knows the road, who can keep ahead, and who pulls others after him.” – John R. Mott

“A leader is a person who has the ability to get others to do what they don’t want to do and like it.” – President Harry S. Truman

“As we look ahead into the next century, leaders will be those who empower others.”  Bill Gates

Each of these definitions gives a new insight and highlights an important aspect of leadership.

“Leadership is influence, the ability  of one person to influence others to follow his or her lead.” J. Oswald Sanders.

“Leadership is influence, nothing more, nothing less.” John Maxwell

Assessing the definitions above.

Let’s assess some of the definitions put forth by some of these great business leaders.

1. John Maxwell: Leadership is influence, nothing more, nothing less.

For him leadership = influence. That’s it? After reading his definition, I need a definition of influence to really understand what he may be saying.

There are a lot of things that have influence which don’t lead. A slave trader has influence over the lives of his slaves. Is that leadership? A dictator has influence over those under his control. That is not leadership. John Maxwell is one of my favorite leadership experts but his definition leaves me unable to do something with it. Yet, he is absolutely correct that leadership is influence. Just that influence to me is too vague.

2. President Harry S. Truman: “A leader is a person who has the ability to get others to do what they don’t want to do and like it.”

I’m not sure if I agree with President Truman’s definition because it would seem to open the door for deception to be seen as leadership. Leaders shouldn’t be getting people to do what they don’t want to do! Leaders are servants of the people. How would you like your servant getting you to do what you don’t want to do and liking it? You might think you’ve been charmed.

Each of the above definitions says something good about leadership. However, I think that some of them say too little to help me have a clear picture of who a leader is and what his job is since leadership is what a leader does.

I encourage you to judge the other definitions for yourself. Which ones do you like?

My Definition of Leadership

Having assessed the aforementioned definitions, I will humbly submit my own definition of leadership for your consideration and critique. I personally believe my definition paints a picture of leadership that is specific, clear, tangible, and measurable, something many of the other definitions–though great don’t address as effectively.

What does a leader do?

“A leader is a servant who S.E.R.V.E.S a team in a way that helps the team to accomplish a shared vision that is bigger than the team. ”

To see a detailed discussion of my definition of leadership including the meaning of my S.E.R.V.E.S mnemonic, click here: The Job Description of a Leader.

I believe my definition is short enough yet also carries a lot in it to help me actually live out leadership.

What do you think about my definition and How would you define leadership?