What is Leadership?What is a Leader?
Updated: Apr 29
I'm currently working on a book, Christ Centered Leadership, and in the weeks and months, I'd like to share some thoughts from that work. Let me know what you think.
What is Leadership?
Leadership is like beauty. It is very hard to define, but we know it when we see it--sometimes. When we see the Grand Canyon stretching across the desert landscape, the Smoky Mountains full of colors in the fall, the snowcapped Rocky Mountains rising in the distance, or a sky full of stars on a clear, dark night, we know we are looking at beauty. But what about less obvious beauty? Apart from those few scenes which are universally accepted as beautiful, it is often difficult to find any two people who agree completely on who, or what, is beautiful.
What is leadership? Like beauty, leadership is often evident to everyone. There are significant figures from history and contemporary life that most people agree are great leaders. There are other significant figures, however, that some see as great leaders yet others do not.
The problem is the absence of a clear and agreed upon definition of leadership. We need a definition of leadership that is complete enough to distinguish leadership from non-leadership and leaders from non-leaders but concise enough to be memorable. It must be flexible enough to encompass leadership across many arenas (business, government, education, church, home), and it must apply to many levels of leadership such as leading self, leading others, leading teams, and leading organizations.
So what is leadership? Leadership is A --> B. Let’s unpack that.
A: Where All Leadership Must Begin
A is the starting point. Simply put, A is where people are, and that is where leadership must begin. Many would be leaders make the mistake of standing on the other side of a great canyon and yelling to those on the other side, “Come over here!” Real leaders, however, cross the canyon, connect with those on the other side, and say, “Let’s go this way.”
B: The Destination of the Leadership Journey
It is important to connect with those we want to lead, but it’s equally important to know where we should take them. It is at this point where definitions of leadership often diverge. Here are two options often reflected in popular leadership definitions:
Option One: Leaders take people where the people want to be: according to this view, the job of a leader is to find out where people desire to go and help them get there. Knowing where individuals, teams, corporations, and even entire nations want to go is important, but where people want to go is often different from where they should go.
Option Two: Leaders take people where the leader wants them to be: in this view of leadership, those leading determine the best destination and lead people there. Just as those being led can want to go somewhere they shouldn’t go, so too can leaders. This kind of leadership uses others to accomplish the mission and vision of the leader, and history and contemporary society is full of examples of this kind of leadership and the suffering and misery it can bring to companies, churches, families, and nations.
If B, the destination of leadership, is not where those being led want to go OR where the leader wants them to go, then what is left? Leadership starts where people are and takes them to where they ought to be. Ought is an ethical word and connotes a since of morality; who ought we to be? What ought we to do? Where ought we to go? Great leaders have a moral and ethical compass that gives them a sense of “oughtness” about themselves, others, and the world around them. This “oughtness” guides their personal lives and their leadership of others. B, then, is the place where those being led ought to be.
Leadership is A --> B, where A is where people are, and B is where people ought to be. So what is -->? It is a process—a set of steps that move people from A to B. Sometimes the road from A to B is short and simple, but in most cases, people don’t need leadership (other than self-leadership) to take those steps. Leadership most often requires a long-term commitment to guide people on a three steps forward, one step backwards journey from A to B.
Putting it all together, leadership is A --> B, or the process of guiding people from where they are to where they ought to be. A leader, then, is a person who guides people through a process that moves them from where they are to where they ought to be.
Leadership: the process of guiding people from where they are to where they ought to be.
Leader: a person who guides people through a process that moves them from where they are to where they ought to be.
What do you think? How does this definition of leadership align with your thoughts and experiences in leadership?