Good leaders learn from others but define leadership in their own terms

“Leadership cannot really be taught. It can only be learned.” While I define leadership below, I truly believe Harold Geneen’s conclusion. So this area of the site is designed to provide you with all the help and guidance you need to “own” leadership yourself. I invite you to read my thoughts and those of others I present (both opinions I agree with and those I don’t - as a leader you need to make your own choices) and invite you to define leadership in your own terms.

Given my background in and passion for music, my definition of leadership looks to this under-used but ultimate source of leadership lessons:

Leadership is like conducting: drawing out the best in people, inspiring them and working with them to create something unique which makes the world a better place.

This site is dedicated to helping leaders in all sections of society to create a healthy, stable environment in which everyone can flourish through transparency, accountability and responsibility. It is the responsibility of all leaders to define their role in these terms.

Although corporate governance seems to be a narrow, specialist field, as you will see from the rest of the site, we take a much wider approach, deliberately challenging the compliance-based approach of the corporate governance industry.

We also aim to lead ourselves, inspiring a new generation of leaders.

An inspiring leader is a light for those who choose to follow and like a vineyard owner, cares for them so they can bear fruit

Our methodology is based on research - listening to and communicating with stakeholders. So we also “walk the talk”, providing thought leadership but encouraging debate and helping identify and achieve a common goal. If you are on this site and serious about leadership you will too. And you will find this approach throughout: we spend our time researching, analysing and learning more about leadership every day and writing about our experiences, providing you with the guidance, and I hope the inspiration, to recognise, use and build on your abilities. Together we really can make the world a better place.

To be a good leader means first to look inside yourself. As I always say, it’s like the airline safety video: put your own oxygen mask before helping others! In other words, you can only be a good leader if you are sure of yourself and take responsibility for your own life first. This also means acting in the way you would like others to act. Every good leader spends lots of time on introspection and indeed has a coach or mentor to help see what we cannot see for ourselves from the inside. 

A little etymology helps define leadership…

Lead comes from the old English lædan, meaning “cause to go with one, lead, guide, conduct, carry; sprout forth; bring forth, pass (one's life)” (source: Both conduct and educate come from the latin ducere, also meaning to guide, or, as my definition says, draw out

You will notice that none of these meanings have the idea of forced movement, but indicate a supportive role which causes someone to follow. Admittedly, in some languages, local culture has given other interpretations, such as in French, where one translation is mener or amener, from the latin minari, which also gives us the word menace, though it also simply means “give indication of”. It’s also fair to say amener is usually used of your dog…let’s hope for the extinction of the variety of leader that views their followers as pets…!

In other romance (latin-based) languages, where the English word lead has not been used (for example in Spanish liderar), the most common root is, once again the latin conducare, indicating that through history and across cultures, leadership has consensus at its core. 

In a world in which we seem to have forgotten where words come from, I believe it is worth pausing for thought to learn the lessons of history and rediscover the true meaning of words. This will help us define leadership better and apply these lessons in our technologically connected but humanly disconnected world.

So how do others define leadership?

Here are a few more leadership definitions to get you started: 

  • Richard Branson, self-made billionaire, undeniably good leader and all-round nice guy - definitely someone who inspires me - defines leadership as:
Somebody who can empower people’s ideas in order to fuel success…

Among my other favourite leadership quotes from Richard is this:

Don’t be afraid of failure, great leaders are truly those who learn the art of turning failure into success…

  • Wikipedia provides a range of fairly bland definitions (especially compared with the above!) mainly from academics, including:
A process of social influence in which one person can enlist the aid and support of others in the accomplishment of a common task.

Organizing a group of people to achieve a common goal.

Somebody whom people follow: somebody who guides or directs others.

I don’t know about you, but I find these definitions of leadership, while technically accurate, to be uninspiring and unhelpful in the search for a practical answer to the challenges of leading people, projects and organisations.

  • The US Army: while I wouldn’t normally choose a military institution to guide leadership, much of the language of business and strategy is based on military analogies and military leaders do have to inspire people to do extraordinary things. These 1983 requisites of a leader reinforce my earlier point about knowing and being sure of yourself before attempting to lead others:
You must have an honest understanding of who you are, what you know, and what you can do. Also, note that it is the followers, not the leader or someone else who determines if the leader is successful. If they do not trust or lack confidence in their leader, then they will be uninspired. To be successful you have to convince your followers, not yourself or your superiors, that you are worthy of being followed..

  • Warren Bennis, one of the “great and good” of leadership studies chose a musical metaphor to define leadership:
I used to think that running an organization was equivalent to conducting a symphony orchestra. But I don't think that's quite it; it's more like jazz. There is more improvisation.

This is much more insightful than other academic interpretations and I clearly approve of looking to music to help describe what it is to be a leader.

Leadership is not just about command and control - it is about inspiring your team to make the vision a reality by conceiving and implementing creative solutions never thought possible.

This definitely chimes with me and reminds me of a fantastic quote by one of the  strongest, albeit dictatorial, leaders of all time - Henry Ford. He said “I’m looking for a lot of men who have an infinite capacity to not know what can’t be done”.

I hope these leadership definitions give you some food for thought and inspire you in your new quest to define leadership in your own terms. Our more lighthearted Quotes and Jokes section provides some more of our favourite thoughts on the subject (or favorite if you're from the “across the Pond”!) to get more of those creative juices flowing!

Applied Corporate Governance > Leadership > Define Leadership

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