Can you define leadership in a way that does not entail being in charge of people? Can your definition account for leadership shown by outsiders, such as green leaders, who aren’t in charge of those who follow?

When we think about defining leadership, we immediately visualize a person at the head of a large business or state. But this focus rules out several kinds of leadership that don’t entail being in charge of those who follow or even being a person at all:

  • Outsiders, like green leaders, having a leadership impact on faraway communities they have never met.
  • Market leading companies, like Apple, leading their competitors.
  • Countries that implement new policies, leading others to follow their example.
  • Bottom-up leadership shown when a front-line innovator convinces management to adopt a new product.
  • Jack Welch’s novel ideas at GE, such as the demand to be number one or two in a market having a leadership impact on other companies.
  • Martin Luther King’s leadership impact on the general population.
  • Leading by example, where employees demonstrate a better way of working and colleagues follow suit.
  • Managers promoting a new idea in a meeting with peers and having a one-off leadership impact on them without being seen as the group’s informal leader.

None of these kinds of leadership involves being in charge of followers. In some cases, the leader does not even know those who follow and, in two cases, countries and market leading companies, are not even individual people: leadership can be shown by groups.

Two steps to defining leadership

Instead of immediately focusing on what it means to be a person in charge of a group, it might be better to take a two-step approach: (1) devise the broadest possible definition of leadership and (2) apply that definition to people in charge of groups.

  1. A broad definition of leadership

There is only one thing that all of the above kinds of leadership share: some individuals or groups follow the lead of some other individuals or groups. In each case, those who follow are influenced to do so; they freely choose to follow. No one makes a decision for them or tells them to follow. Thus all such instances of leadership are based on pure, non-coercive, informal influence; no formal authority is involved.

A broad definition of leadership that captures these diverse instances might be as follows: leadership influences others to change direction, either by example or by advocating a better way.

This means that leadership is influence, nothing more. We need to be careful, however, to make it clear that such a statement does NOT imply that ALL forms of influence count as leadership. Analogously, saying that snow is white doesn’t imply that all white things are snow. Just as there are white swans, white cars and white golf balls, there are kinds of influence, such as selling or persuading your children to eat their vegetables that shouldn’t be seen as leadership.

  1. Applying our definition to people in charge of groups

If leadership means influencing people to think or act differently, and it is not a role by definition, then all role aspects of being a CEO, president or manager must not count as leadership. If leadership is not a role, then those in charge can only SHOW leadership, not BE leaders. There are no leaders, in this case, just acts of influence.

Perhaps we need to see leadership as a process, not an object. When we initially think of how to define leadership, we focus on a person: an object. But the world is full of processes: some natural like mating, soil erosion, boiling, freezing and burning, for example, not to mention thousands of processes invented by humans.

A common feature of most processes is that one thing is changed into something else: an impact occurs through a form of influence or impact.

Those in charge of groups show leadership by using a vision or other influencing tactic to persuade people to change direction. Hence they do not show leadership when they are away from the office, at home asleep or for much of their day-to-day working lives.

This means that we need to refer to CEOs, presidents and other executives by some other name and stop calling them leaders. This may seem counterintuitive but it makes sense of our intuition that no one is a leader simply by virtue of occupying a role.

Still, when we say that occupying a role doesn’t make anyone a leader, the usual implication is that being a certain kind of person is what counts. This intuition can be reinterpreted as the ability to use a range of influencing tactics. For instance, to influence people to take a course of action that entails risk, where the outcome is important but uncertain, the person doing the influencing must be credible and trustworthy.

However, we also need to bear in mind that anyone in charge of a group has responsibilities. That is part of what it means to occupy a role, any role. Being a husband, wife, father, mother, teacher, lighthouse keeper or store cashier means having certain responsibilities. This is not to say that all such role occupants carry out their responsibilities, but the responsibilities are still part of the meaning of such roles.

The point of this discussion is that many of the personal characteristics we apply to leaders actually apply to executives, whether we call them leaders or not. Their roles require them to be trustworthy even if they are not leaders. The bottom-line is that we confuse the need for such traits with what it means to be a leader.

The truth is that some very disreputable people can show leadership, including criminals and terrorists. Artists with zero emotional intelligence can have a leadership impact on other artists, simply by the excellence, beauty and novelty of their work. This means that any particular personality trait is only a situational requirement. Certain traits may be necessary in order to influence some people on some issues in some situations. For example, you couldn’t take a leadership stand on a particular moral principle without being seen to adhere to that principle yourself.

Advantages of a broader definition of leadership

  • We can account for bottom-up leadership by defining it as an influence process, thereby making sense of how all front-line employees can show leadership upwards by convincing management to make some change.
  • We gain a definition of leadership that accounts for a wide range of instances, including market leadership.
  • We clarify what it means to be in charge of people.
  • We gain an opportunity to upgrade management to make it a supportive, facilitative and nurturing role instead of a cold, mechanical, controlling one.
  • We pave the way for a broader sharing of the leadership load, making it less an executive monopoly.
  • We empower all employees, even those who might never be managers, to show leadership on an occasional basis, even those with low emotional intelligence or who lack other sterling character traits.
  • Our emphasis switches from being a certain kind of person to having compelling content, in line with the idea that “content is king.” Apple, for instance, leads by having great content, not by possessing certain personality traits. This move makes it easier to see how any innovative employee can show leadership.

Obstacles blocking this definition of leadership

The main obstacle blocking such a change in our thinking about leadership is our deep need to look up to one person. This is why we focus on the most glamorous, heroic examples we can think of when we try to define leadership rather than front line supervisors.

We can perhaps put such hero worship into perspective by noting that all admirable people are role models. Being a role model really means leading by example. But role models show leadership by example only when people follow. But this is true of all forms of leading by example. A country with strong welfare policies that entail high taxes has no leadership impact if no other countries follow suit. Other countries must follow this example in order for leadership to occur.

Does this mean that anyone wanting to lead others should strive to be an exemplary person? No, because leadership is relative to particular domains or contexts. It’s not so important in highly technical contexts, such as when a product developer wants to have a leadership impact with respect to some new features of a technical product.

More importantly, our new definition of leadership helps us to see that, regardless of what personal characteristics might have a leadership impact on others, we need to see leadership as an impact, the outcome of a process.

The requisite traits depend on the type of leadership impact that is desired. If you want to influence people to communicate transparently, you need to be transparent yourself. If you want to influence people to act with humility, you need to have humility yourself. To influence people to be more customer-focused, strategic or commercially astute, it helps to be able to set the appropriate example.

Are there no universal leadership traits then, like integrity for example? Here is where we risk getting confused. As noted earlier, such traits may be essential for being an executive or for occupying any role depending on the nature of the associated responsibilities. But we need to keep reminding ourselves that some very disreputable, untrustworthy characters have been leaders throughout history.

The bottom line is that the only requirement for leading people is to be able to influence them. The key question is: What will it take to influence this particular group? Some may be impressed by compelling content even if the sterling character traits of the positional leader are lacking.

In conclusion, we live in an increasingly knowledge driven world where compelling content can be sufficient to lead others. Admirable character traits may lead others to be admirable characters too but our need for faster innovation requires a new way of thinking about leadership, one that is more about influence and content and less about being a certain sort of person.

Defining leadership as an influence process has so many advantages that it is worth the effort to stop thinking about leadership in terms of what it means to be a person in charge of people.