June 09


Can leadership be defined? Part 2 – What do position based definitions of leadership tell us? by Max Eskell

In my last blog post, I argued that defining leadership was challenging.  The potentially limitless combinations of leader, follower and situation are too numerous to analyse, let alone distill to an extent that a single definition of leadership is universally useful.  For example, leading a platoon in combat is very different to leading a golf club.  Indeed, leading a platoon in combat can be very different.  The leader can be experienced, or ‘green’ and the followers could be professional soldiers or conscripts.  However, leadership definitions are useful.

So what do ‘position’ based definitions of leadership add to our understanding of leadership?

Defining leaders as people in formal positions of authority is broadly accurate. Millions of people currently occupy leadership positions in business, government and the third sector. Without identifying these people as leaders if would be tough to get work done. Decision taking would be impossible, and as Google showed in Project Oxygen, leader and managers help get more work done.  However, there must be more to leadership than occupying a position of power.

Positional definitions of leadership, do little to help leaders understand how their environment affects how leadership exercised differently.  Organisations bestow authority on individuals to manage other people and get work done.  While some organisations, such as the military, articulate very clearly roles and responsibility, other organisations, for example, not-for-profits, are more ambiguous. In both cases, the leaders hold positions of authority but are likely to require very different approaches.

If you define leaders as those in formal positions you ignore emergent leadership or leadership through expertise or knowledge.  There are many contexts where someone with no formal leadership position, exercises leadership.  A professor may be a leader in their field or someone with significant expertise in a subject may temporarily adopt a leadership role.  Perhaps the most notable exclusion is that positional based definitions of leadership miss emergent leaders such as Martin Luther King Jr or Mahatma Gandhi.  These two globally famous leaders never adopted formal positions of leadership, and they had no role or formal responsibilities, yet their followers numbered in the thousands.

In conclusion, while positional definitions of leadership are accurate, they are fundamentally flawed.  If you use positional definitions alone, you make several assumptions

  • Only people in positions of authority can lead others
  • Followers will follower leaders purely due to the positional authority of the leader
  • Leadership is a function of your role, not who you are or your current environment. Therefore, there can be no ‘natural’ leaders, and you cannot train to be a leader

I hope this has proved helpful.  Next week I will explore ‘person’ based definitions of leadership.