The REAL Definition of Leadership (That You Need to Know Right Now)

The Real Definition of leadership (That You Need to Know Right Now)

Definitions matter.

Depending on how you define something determines how you act on it.

If, for example, your definition of a healthy relationship is watching television together – that to you is what a healthy relationship is – that’s your definition – then, first of all, I feel for you in all your future relationships, but more than that, your definition is going to impact your relationships negatively.

In the same way, how we define leadership matters.

There’s a lot of confusion (and misinformation) about what leadership is (and isn’t). This person says this, this person says that leadership is this, management is that – and this affects how people lead.

And, with how low engagement in our workplaces is today and the high percentage of people who have left because of their managers and bosses, leadership is hurting.

It’s important that we really understand what leadership is.

It’s also important to understand that leadership isn’t whatever we want it to be. Leadership is what it is.

Sometimes I hear people say “To me, leadership is….” And they feel in the blank.

Now, what they fill in the blank with is usually good. They may say leadership is solving problems or making decisions or helping your team to be their best.

Those are good things that leaders should do, but they in themselves aren’t a definition of leadership.

Don’t get me wrong, technically you can call leadership whatever you want – you just want to be effective as a leader.

It’s like me saying, “To me, carpentry is measuring wood.” Well, that’s great. Carpenters should do that. That is part of what carpenters do, but it’s not what carpentry is. If I define carpentry that way, I’m not going to be a very good carpenter.

Or, going back to the relationship example, if I say, “To me, love is holding hands and doing dishes”. Those are great things and things you should do. However, those don’t define love, they are things that you may do because you love someone.

There’s a difference. Semantics matter.

Also Read: 10 Leadership Characteristics Of An Effective Leader

The definition of leadership

So what is the definition of leadership? The best definition I found came from Peter Northouse’s book Leadership (and others had similar). To paraphrase, the definition of leadership is:

The process of guiding people through influence toward the accomplishment of a goal.

Let’s dive into this definition a little more.


Leadership is a process.

Leadership is a process

First, when it comes to learning it, just like any other skill, it takes time and is a process (but that’s not what it’s really talking about in this situation – just an extra freebie – you’re welcome).

It’s a process because it’s not a one-time event. You don’t necessarily do the same linear thing the whole time. Things change. As situations change your approach changes.

Northouse also said, “Process implies that a leader affects and is affected by followers.”


Notice that it doesn’t say forcing or coercing. If you are forcing or coercing, then you aren’t leading.


You must have people following you. If you are heading toward a goal by yourself, that can be good depending on the situation, but you aren’t leading.


Leadership is built on influence. In fact, Northouse said, “Without influence, leadership does not exist.

Maxwell and many other authors have emphasized in their books as well the importance of influence.

Influence is the relationship and respect you have with others that cause them to want to act with and for you.

If you use your position or authority to make people do what you want, that’s not leading, that, again, is forcing.

And the impact you will get from just using your position or authority will be limited by the authority you have.  And if you use position, you build resentment, not goodwill.

Listen to Podcast: Episode 14: 7 Key Ways to Build Influence As A Leader

Toward the accomplishment of a goal

To be leading someone, you must be taking them somewhere.

Sometimes people focus on building relationships with their team. That’s a good thing. You want to do that.

However, if that’s all you do, then you aren’t leading, you are just being a nice, social person.

Leadership is taking people somewhere.

Now, your organization may have set missions or goals it’s pursuing. You can own those and lead your team toward those goals. You don’t have to be the one to create them.

At the same time, even with you pursuing the organization’s goals, you can set goals and vision within your team that move you toward the organization’s mission and goals.

Your definition of leadership matters

How you define leadership matters, as it affects your effectiveness as a leader.

Make sure you aren’t defining leadership by something that leaders do instead of what leadership is.

Now that you understand the definition of leadership, if you want the best explanation between a leader and a manager, make sure to check out this article here.


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