Can leadership be defined? Part 6 – The answer

Over the last four posts, we have explored the four common definitions of leadership – person, process, results and position.  By analysing each of these, it is possible to show that each type of definition has both strengths and weakness.

Leadership definitions which rely on a leader’s position while evident, are unhelpful.  By defining a leader as someone with followers, or with a particular role or title, you provide no guidance on how to make the transition from follower to leader, or how to differentiate between good and bad leaders.

Person based definitions allow us to draw conclusions on what traits or characteristics enabled individual leaders to be successful (or not).  However, the traits identified in one context, are unlikely to be transferable elsewhere.  It is also likely to be a challenge for leaders attempting to emulate these traits (how do you become charismatic?).

Defining leaders by their impact or results may be tempting, but this can only be done in hindsight.  In today’s complex world, it is also hard to determine how much the leader contributed to successes, and how much was contributed by followers or other factors.

Process definitions are helpful, as they suggest the leadership is driven by context – an important factor omitted in other definitions.  However, these definitions often disagree on how context matters.  Process definitions are also based on the assumption that leaders do or can understand the context they face, and that they are then able to adapt.

In summary, while I have shown that many have tried to define leadership, only process definitions have come close to capturing the infinite complexity of the relationship between leaders, followers and their environment.  However, process definitions also have their shortcomings.

In conclusions, there is no single definition of leadership in a way that is universally applicable or useful.   However, this does not suggest that defining leadership is a fool’s errand, just that in defining leadership you impose arbitrary conditions and assumptions.  Therefore, when you, your business, or your organisation, defines leadership you must be aware of and articulate the conditions and assumptions which underpin you definition.