Lost in Definition


David BurkusIt started with Bennis.

Bennis wrote that “Managers do things right, leaders do the right thing.” With all due respect to one of the brightest minds of leadership theory, I still have no idea what that is supposed to mean. Perhaps it’s the lack of clarity in the definition that set us on a crusade to draw up a final draft.

Perhaps we bit off more than we can chew.

Now we have:

“Leadership is influence.”

“Leadership is the ability to impress the will the leader on the followers.”

“Leadership is an influence relationship.”

“Leadership is what leaders to in groups.”

“Leadership is inspiring others to take action.”

“Leadership is the ability to get someone to do what you want them to do and like it.”

On and on it goes until we’re left more confused than we were with Bennis’ definition alone. It seems like leadership scholars are gridlocked in their debate over the precise wording of a leadership definition. It seems like leadership students are lost in definition.

Allow me to be the first to raise this question: who cares?

Should the study of leadership be any different than biology or psychology? Gather a roomful of biology scholars and you’ll likely get a roomful of definitions of biology. Yet they find a way to work together to progress their field. Why should leadership be any different? Indeed, the definitions above all share a similar resemblance.

We must move beyond this need to define. We must stop asking ourselves what a leader looks like so we can begin to tackle the more important, more vital questions:

What makes a leader effective? What makes “good” leadership?

Introducing David Burkus, with his first guest appearance at Never Mind the Manager. – Thank you David.
David Burkus is the editor of LeaderLab, a community of resources dedicated to promoting the practice of leadership theory. He is an executive coach, a sought-after speaker and an adjunct professor of business at several universities. David focuses on developing leaders putting leadership and organizational theory into practice. Follow David on Twitter

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4 Comments on "Lost in Definition"

  1. Frode Heimen | July 8, 2010 at 5:55 am |

    Hi Andreas.
    Good point. Correcting faults is a skill. People do make mistakes, even the best of us. A good leader will probably also do mistakes, but the good ones do apologize, correct and move on. Or if you are even greater, you will ask for help, and get someone else to feel appreciated for helping.

    Have a great day at work! You are great!

  2. Frode Heimen | July 8, 2010 at 5:51 am |

    Hi Mike.
    Thank you for reading, and for your comment.
    Do you think that a true leader can be taught to be a true leader? You say: “true leaders have a charisma that is not common to non-leaders” – can this skill be learned?

  3. Leaders can articulate a dream. Leaders can get others involved in their dream.

    A true leader is someone who can see what other people can’t yet see. They speak in common words and yet sound like no one else alive. A leader can show you things that he or she can see, that you too can sense, but you can not yet see yourself.

    Leaders give people an outlet to express themselves.
    Leaders validate people’s need to express themselves.
    Leaders showcase other leaders in order to inspire non-leaders
    to step up and to become leaders.
    Leaders communicate a vision, more than they do a business
    plan. Leaders unite. . . . . . non-leaders divide and see everyone
    outside of them as the competition.
    Leaders connect their followers to each other and true leaders
    have a charisma that is not common to non-leaders.

  4. Andreas Lohne | June 20, 2010 at 5:24 pm |

    “Managers do things right, leaders do the right thing.”

    I guess it’s meant to express that leadership can be taught, but that some people are just natural leaders.

    I don’t know whether it expresses it very well.

    In my modest experience a good leader is recognized by his or her ability to make good decisions more often than bad ones, but a great leader is recognized by his or her reaction to discovering they’ve made a bad decision and then taking charge and the necessary steps to get things back on a good course.

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