Can leadership be defined? Part 5 – What do process based definitions of leadership tell us? By Max Eskell

Leaders provide vision, priorities and alignment.

Robert Kaplan

Process definitions of leadership attempt to define leaders by what they do and how they behave.  A quick trawl of Flipboard, LinkedIn or even military valour citations (the photo shows the Battle of Rorke’s Drift), shows that leaders are expected to do certain things or behave in a certain way.  For example, as the opening quote shows, Kaplan argues that leaders do three specific things.  The British Army take a wider approach (see here), and focus on how leaders should behave.

  • Loyalty
  • Integrity
  • Courage
  • Discipline
  • Respect for others
  • Selfless commitment

Other process definitions are more contextual, and stipulate that leaders should behave differently in difference circumstances.   For example, Tannenbaum and Schmidt argue that leadership approach is determined by how much authority the leader is willing to transfer to their followers (see below and here), and that this should depend on the nature of the task and the capability of the group (i.e., the more complex and less time-dependent the task and the more capable the group, the more the leader should release their authority).


Keith Grint argues that the best leadership approach depends on the type of problem your organisation faces (see image below and here).  For example, a command approach is more useful when storming a battle trench, than when trying to secure a multinational climate change agreement.


These process based definitions of leadership are helpful, as they provide insight as to what may be important within a specific context.  These definitions can then be used to analyse the behaviours of leaders,  and determine why they were successful (or not!).  Processes can also be copied, and so these process definitions also provide tools that leaders can use to adapt and improve how they exercise leadership.

However, process-based definitions of leadership rarely agree on what the contextual factors which should drive leadership behaviour.  They also are unclear as to whether  leadership behaviour is a driver of context or context drives leadership behaviour.

In conclusion, process-based definitions of leaders are helpful.  They allow you to analyse how leadership is exercised by others, and they also make it clear that leaders should adapt to the context they face, and provide advice on how to do so.  However, leaders must ensure that they understand the context they face, and then be able to adapt.

This draws to an end my exploration of the four broad leadership definitions (person, process, results and position).  In my final post on this topic, I hope to synthesise what I have learnt and answer the question as to whether leadership can be defined.

1. I thought hard about whether to include the painting of the Zulu wars.  My intent is to show that courage, and leading from the front, are often seen as key leaderships behaviours.  I do not intend to cause offence, or condone the actions of the British Empire or the use of violence.