On defining leadership

December 20, 2008


Leadership is notoriously difficult to define. So how do you deal with that in writing an essay on leadership?

I recently assessed a large number of essays on leadership. A proportion of the students struggled with defining leadership. This makes it a good topic for a blog, as it may be of interest not only to students, but to anyone who wants to become a more effective leader.

I will distinguish between working definitions and theoretical definitions, illustrating the point from a current Wikipedia article on leadership

Why do we need definitions?

This is a question which has exercised philosophical thinkers down the ages, who have attempted an answer under fearsome titles such as epistemology and ontology.

Fortunately, the student can side-step the more mind-boggling complexities of philosophy and think instead of the metaphor of carrying out a personal journey of discovery, and in particular the (still metaphoric) processes of map reading, map testing and map making.

As the journey is to explore leadership, the maps will be those of leadership, and the process will develop understanding of different kinds of ways leadership is defined on the maps.

Working definitions

In everyday life, we do not define every word uttered or written. So we might want to say something about Barack Obama’ leadership qualities assuming that our ideas can be communicated without further definition. For example, you might begin writing with the statement

“Barack Obama showed his leadership qualities in appointing presidential rival Hilary Clinton to his top executive team.”

The context of the statement may be enough to explain what we mean by leadership qualities without any further definition.

Different kinds of definition

More often than not, you may feel the need to build your essay around a definition of leadership. In which case, you need to understand something about different kinds of definitions

The search for a definition is in some ways like selecting a map. The decision depends on the journey you expect to be making. The American philosopher Charles Leslie Stephenson devised a scheme for classifying definitions. You can find an easy-to-understand summary in Cline

What separates a good from a bad definition? That’s a difficult question to answer, but a general principle to keep in mind is that it depends a great deal on context — specifically, what the purpose of the definition is. To answer “is this a good or a bad definition,” one must first answer “what are we trying to achieve with this definition?” Thus we must examine the specific situation in which the definition is given and what sort of definition it is supposed to be.

For the student writing an essay, he or she has to decide which particular definition ‘works’ . This is likely to go beyond common-sense and a theoretical definition is called for. Cline points out that definitions are called “theoretical”

…because they attempt to construct a “theory” about the nature of the thing in question. Thus, a theoretical definition of “justice” is not simply an attempt to point out what justice is or report on how people happen to use the word, but instead an attempt to create a theory which argues for a particular conception of justice.

Starting your essay on Leadership

Textbooks on leadership are good starting points, as the more respected ones such as Yukl’s provide a of short-list of definitions which you should now be able to study so as to distinuguish between different kinds of definition, and decide which ‘works’ for your purposes.

The vanilla option

The vanilla option for any essay avoids literary elegance in favour of straightforward communication. A popular version is to have a simple introductory paragraph which is a ‘map of the map’, followed by a paragraph which gets straight into definitional treatment you intend to provide.

I can illustrate this with reference to the Wikipedia entry on leadership [December 19th 2008], which can be studied as an example of the vanilla option. Please note I am not suggesting you start your essay by cutting and pasting from wikipedia. You will probably be penalised on grounds of plagiarism.

The article begins

Leadership is one of the most salient aspects of the organizational context. However, defining leadership has been challenging. The following sections discuss several important aspects of leadership including a description of what leadership is and a description of several popular theories and styles of leadership.

Leadership has been described as the “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” … A definition more inclusive of followers comes from Alan Keith of Genentech who said “Leadership is ultimately about creating a way for people to contribute to making something extraordinary happen.”

Does the first paragraph provide a convincing “map of the map”? Can you see in the second paragraph a theoretical definition, and a working definition?

If so, you are on the way to ‘map reading and testing’, as well as understanding the nature of definitions and how they might work in your own essays on leadership. (You might even feel like improving the Wikipedia article.)