I’ve been fascinated by leadership since the mid-90s, when my fabulous then-boss Bonnie Maraia gave me a book on how women lead in the workplace. I still have that book, along with shelves full of other books on leadership. I love to attend leadership conferences, both secular and Christian. I’m working on the last steps of a doctorate in leadership at Wesley Theological Seminary. I wake up in the middle of the night thinking about leadership, how to encourage leaders, how to grow my own leadership skills. Basically, I am a big, annoying leadership nerd.
But if you asked me to give you a quick, no-more-than-30-seconds description of exactly what leadership is, I still might struggle to find the words.
“Leadership” tends to be a rather amorphous term, thrown around indiscriminately. Depending on the context, it can reference radically different concepts: persuasive influence, authoritative arm-twisting, organizational activity. It can be defined as being vested in a particular individual, being shared within a group, or toggling between individual and group. Leadership can be symbolic or concrete, structured or loose, forceful or gentle. It can be a relationship or a role, goal-oriented or process-centered. In his book Leadership for the Twenty-First Century, Joseph Rost asserted that “leadership is a word that has come to mean all things to all people.” Like Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart’s explanation of pornography, when it comes to leadership, “we know it when we see it.”
In an attempt to simplify things, I went back to the basics: a plain old-fashioned dictionary, albeit the modern online version thereof. This is the definition of “leadership” that popped up: (1) the office or position of a leader, (2) the capacity to lead, and (3) an act or instance of leading.
Even such a simple definition has its issues, in addition to problematically using forms of the term “lead” within the definition of leadership. Definition (1) tells us that the only people in leadership are those with the official position of leader, something that you could print on a business card. And if leadership is defined by the ability to lead (definition 2), that necessarily implies that not everyone possesses the ability to lead. Finally (3) if you are not actively engaged in an officially sanctioned leadership position, then you are not actually a leader.
I did not find those definitions terribly helpful or illuminating. So, next I searched the dictionary for the definition of “leader.” A leader is … are you ready for it? … “a person or thing that leads.”
[Yep. Thanks for that clarification.]
Is leadership really that vague, context-specific, and difficult to define? Together we’re going to find out! Over the next few days and weeks, we’ll be taking a deep look at leadership: what it means. Who leads, and how. And most importantly: why.
I hope you’ll be along for the ride!
What definition of leadership have you heard or read that made the most sense to you?