Redefining Leadership


The title of this blog entry refers not to an effort to crowd the literature with another definition of leadership, but to the proposed expansion of the kind of people who should be considered leaders.

Let’s accept the definition of leadership given by Kevin Kruse in his Forbes article, with one minor modification [in parentheses]:

Leadership is a process of social influence, which maximizes the efforts of others, towards the achievement of a [worthwhile] goal.

The modification is important to exclude gang leaders, Mafia bosses, and politicians like Hitler and Stalin.

Before stating the proposed expansion of the kind of people who should be considered leaders, let me suggest the common characteristics of leaders who are very good, perhaps even outstanding, in leading:[1]

  1. Strategic decision-makers – They have socially-acceptable goal(s) others can identify with; think ahead, plan for contingencies, and are good at “balancing” (that is, making judgments involving tradeoffs).
  2. Motivators – They challenge themselves and prompt others to continually improve performance. (“Prompt” implies an understanding of what motivates different kinds of people, and applying that understanding.)
  3. Assertive – They work hard to overcome challenges, adversities and resistance.
  4. Take responsibility – They take only modest credit for successes and full or main responsibility for failures. This means that they give abundant credit to others; that they avoid blaming. Taking responsibility also involves establishing structures and processes to help reports and colleagues to deliver on expectations.
  5. Fair and consistent – Means that those who want to lead should advance trust in others; consider advice from many sources; are empathetic listeners; keep prejudice at bay; and explain (are transparent) about decisions that impact others.
  6. Forge positive relationships – First and foremost, they build an engaging environment where team members have strong relationships with each other (versus the “divide and rule” approach that so many insecure leaders practice). Positive relationships are built also with as many stakeholders as possible.

In defining who should be considered a leader, much of the academic literature focuses on the debate on whether managers should also be considered leaders or whether they are of a different species from “true” leaders.

Some draw a sharp distinction: “managers do things right, while leaders do the right things”. Others, like Henry Mintzberg, Cleghorn Professor of Management at McGill University, hold the view that such a compartmentalization is artificial.

Leadership involves plumbing as well as poetry. Instead of distinguishing leaders from managers, we should encourage all managers to be leaders. And we should define ‘leadership’ as management practiced well.[2]

I agree with Mintzberg’s interpretation, although I think he does not go far enough. Leadership is a concept that, in my view, applies to many individuals, team members, and (within organizations) not just to those who formally manage people or have leadership titles, but to others, too.

It goes without saying, of course, that certain individuals have much greater leadership influence than others, based on their position, knowledge, experience, charisma, and so on. The key point is that most everyone is in a position, some of the time, to exercise the functions of leadership. It is another matter whether persons who have the potential would take advantage of such opportunities. And so, too, whether the leader(s) at the top will make it possible – empower – those below them to exercise leadership functions in certain circumstances. If those with greater responsibilities would act according to the principles of “Flow-promoting leadership” (a concept based on Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s writings on Flow and its application in his Good Business book), not out of the goodness of their heart but because its practices yield large benefits to individuals as well as to the organization, then the ideal situation sketched below would become reality. In that case, leadership functions would be exercised way beyond so-called managers and bosses, in the following way:

  1. Leadership opportunities are available to many individuals, even if they do not have formal title as managers or the “boss”. Most of us do have (at least situational) leadership opportunities – in our family, in our social group, as freelancers, and of course at the workplace, as will be illustrated.
  2. Leadership opportunities also arise via participation in teams. Much of the work in our knowledge-based economy is accomplished through teams. Most people have some combination of talents, knowledge and skills that they use in their daily lives to interact with others and to achieve goals. Therefore, in those areas, any member of a team should act – and be recognized by others – as a “leader”, not in the sense of imposing his or her views, but by being confident and active in contributing to the mission of the team. If this proposition would be implemented and accepted by team members, it is likely to yield more effective results and less friction and frustration among team members.
  3. In an organizational setting, leaders include not only C-level executives and managers, but most everyone, irrespective of position in the hierarchy, who has certain talents, knowledge, or skills. (The statements under (1) and (2) apply here, stressing that the extent of leadership influence is typically much greater for certain individuals than it is for others.)

Let’s consider the simple example of a parent, let’s assume, of a teenager, and speculate briefly about whether and how the six principles of good leadership would apply to him or to her, vis-à-vis a typical teenager. (Most effective, of course, is to have a common understanding between the parents or parent-substitutes about how to “manage” a teenager. However, the example here focuses on the individual, in this case, in his or her role as a leader of a teenager.)

One purpose of the example is to “prove” that most of us are leaders, even though we may not so view ourselves. The other is to show that the above six principles of good leadership apply even to those who do not routinely identify themselves, nor does society label them, as “leaders”.

  1. Strategic decision-maker – The goal, with which a teenager can identify with, can be formulated, for example, as “Let’s do the best we (the parent and the teenager) can do to develop your hard and soft skills so as to maximize the chances that you’ll be a successful and happy adult.”
  2. Motivator – Actively help the teenager to develop along those lines that interest her or him; expose the daughter or son to as many interesting experiences as possible, thus helping to develop such interests.
  3. Assertive – Work hard – and smart– to overcome challenges, adversities and resistance; forces surely be encountered, from time to time, from a teenager.
  4. Take responsibility – Give credit where credit is due (but don’t over-praise; that would be counterproductive). Don’t overdo criticism or blame, either. Establish, cooperatively with the daughter or son, structures and procedures to help move toward the common goal.
  5. Fair and consistent – Advance trust, be an empathetic listener, don’t be overly prejudiced about her or his friends and activities; explain those of your decisions that are important to your daughter or son.
  6. Forge positive relationships – Avoid, like a plague, a “divide and rule” situation, for example, parents disagreeing about rules and procedures, or explicitly or implicitly pitting siblings against each other, or against a previous or new spouse. Build relationships with as many of the “key influencers” of your daughter or son as your time and opportunities allow.

It should be noted that all six leadership characteristics mentioned are not only consistent with, but are also integral parts of, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s recommendations on how to promote “Flow” in others.

[1] In putting together the list, I was influenced by Gallup’s “Five Dimensions of Manager Talent” (; three of my six “good leader characteristics” overlap with those identified by Gallup.