Leadership Confusion

DSC07412Leadership… no one seems to be able to agree on a common definition.

A great example of this is in recent posting by Brittney Helmrich from the Business News Daily.  In the article, “30 Ways to Define Leadership”, Helmrich quotes the definitions of leadership by 30 business executives.  Each definition is sensible and stands well on its own.  The comments are intelligent and well informed.  In a professional or classroom situation everyone would agree all of the quotes are good, if not enlightened.

But in the context of all the quotes, each definition is different.  In some cases, the difference is subtle… a simple difference in word selection.  In other cases, the quotes address completely different aspects of leadership: vision, empowerment, motivation, emotional intelligence, taking responsibility, empathy, influence, inspiration, to name a few.  All are great concepts.

Who really knows?

Probably the most quoted definition of leadership is by Martin Chemers, a well-known leadership researcher.  He defines leadership as “a process of social influence in which one person is able to enlist the aid and support of others in the accomplishment of a common task.”

“Leadership Research and Theory – A Functional Integration” by Michael Chemers (2000)

The confusion of a definition is that leadership theory covers a variety of different aspects (this not an all-inclusive list):

  • Leadership qualities
  • Traits
  • Skills
  • Values
  • Ethics
  • Functions
  • Situational leadership
  • Formal versus informal
  • Transactional (behavioral)
  • Transformational

It is from the foundation of these different areas that each person uses as a premise or context for their definition.  The bias is one of education, experience, or even culture.  It is the context of the word that is confusing.

What are the first principles of leadership?  What are its origins?

The human race did not become the apex predator on this planet because our evolutionary development lead us to be the fastest, strongest, or the most powerful.  Our development included a social component that led toward group survival.

The tendency to surrender to authority figures is an innate evolutionary component of our psychology.  We are predisposed to accept an obedient position (at least until we don’t).  Our childhood development included an acquiescence to a higher authority (our parents or guardians) which extended in later years from parents to the larger group unit of tribe or extended family (millennia ago, they were most likely the same).

We were obedient and tended to support the authority of the persons or persons we trusted for group survival and, subsequently, our own survival.  Even in our modern world, we abdicated authority to anyone that would reduce feelings of uncertainty: specialists (doctors, lawyers, police), community leaders, “thought leaders”, etc.  Where this acquiescence exists there is a vacuum that expects some form of leadership.

My definition is of leadership

I do not address the “what” or the “how”, but the “who”.

Leadership is a confluence of two social roles.

  • The follower surrenders some aspect of autonomy.
  • The leader fills the vacuum and assumes authority over a follower.

What must exist for leadership is the passive psychological need for authority and the fulfillment of that need.  But, people are complicated, so that want will exist on a spectrum.  Followers who experience no need for outside leadership will not accept it.  The best you can expect is tolerance.

Leadership is a self-selected position.  Leaders exist also on a spectrum and may not have the desire to fulfill the role.  Those who do not wish to lead do not fill the vacuum of leadership.

The challenge for anyone in a leadership position is to understand that leadership exists in many different contexts.  The position can be formal (work) or informal (some social situation), but the dynamic will exist.

In the social situation, the leadership role could be permanent (a family head) or fleeting (what will we do tonight?).  In informal situations, persons not wishing to assume a leadership role will remain in the background until some conflict or motivation brings them to fore.  The only consequence is, perhaps an unorganized group.

In the formal, business situation, there is an expectation of performance.  The qualities of leadership, skills, values, traits, ethics, etc. are all tools to be learned and honed.  But the role cannot be ignored.  If you surrender your leadership role, there may be consequences.  From a performance perspective, you may be judged a weak leader and limited in further career opportunities.  From the perspective of your subordinates, somebody else may take up the leadership mantle.  Formally, they may, rightfully, assume the credit for successes.  Informally, they may not be working to the benefit of you or the group.

Though not the subject of this article, leaders need to remember that there is a difference between abdicating leadership responsibilities and delegating leadership responsibilities.


Leadership is a responsibility and a position of trust.  People will look to you for guidance.  If the responsibility makes you uncomfortable, seek another professional path (for example, a staff specialist or subject matter expert).

Do not ignore the existence of the leadership dynamic.  Accept that the relationship is a normal result of our survival development.

Your role acceptance and how you lead will determine your success.

If you are one of those people who do not enjoy the spotlight and responsibilities of leadership, do not be alarmed.  It’s good that you have the self-awareness to be honest about your capabilities.  There are, in most fields, specialty functions that require specialization and no need to supervisor other people.  Stay with your strengths.


Kenneth Wrede












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Kenneth Wrede

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