Quick: Define Leadership by Brian Evje

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DeM Banter:  Nice article by Brian Evje.  Just the other day I was asked to define leadership and I quickly defaulted to John Maxwell’s “Leadership is Influence” definition. I think Maxwell is spot on however… Max DePree’s “The first responsibility of a leader is to define reality. The last is to say thank you. In between, the leader is a servant,” is another I have used several times… but it is probably time for me to sit down and develop a neo-DeMarcoian definition… hummm more to come.   

dictionary1If you don’t know what your leadership is, how are you going to make it persuasive to others? Only a few people have a solid answer.

When first working with a client, I ask, “What is your definition of your leadership?”

Invariably, a pause follows. The eventual response is sometimes tentative, confused, or incomplete. This happens with new and experienced leaders, in large companies and in start-ups. Only a few people have a solid answer. Not many leaders have a clear, concise, concrete definition of what being a leader means to them.

The eminent leadership scholar Ralph Stogdill observed, “There are nearly the same number of leadership definitions as there are people who have attempted to define it.” Here are just a few perspectives:

  • “The first job of a leader is to define a vision for the organization…the capacity to translate vision into reality.” (Warren Bennis)
  • “Leadership is a series of behaviors rather than a role for heroes.” (Margaret Wheatley)
  • “Leadership: the art of getting someone else to do something that you want done because he wants to do it.” (Dwight D. Eisenhower)

It is no wonder then, that a ready answer is not on the lips of every leader. But the lack of a compelling, individual definition can be a serious defect.

Why Define Your Leadership?

When asked, “Why should I have a definition for my leadership?” I answer, “What is the cost of not understanding the foundation of your leadership? What is the cost of not knowing your core? If you do not define your leadership, who will?”

A definition provides meaning; meaning reveals purpose; and meaning and purpose combine to inform your identity. Identity enables a vision of the future–the direction in which leadership is oriented.

Too many leaders see their leadership as a series of tasks. But a proper leader has a different identity from non-leaders and, therefore, needs a distinct definition. Tasks are necessary, although starting with tasks without first grasping the wider, deeper picture of leadership identity will generate unfocused, unsustainable action.

I worked with a startup CEO who initially stated her definition as “increasing revenue.” Another client, a corporate vice president of engineering, gave his definition as “controlling innovation and product releases.” These are valuable goals and, as it turned out, activities that needed to be handled by others. They were too narrow and too small to be adequate definitions of leadership.

Over time, the CEO arrived at a definition of “moving shared purpose forward” (one of my personal favorites). The VP of engineering settled on “creating and maintaining an environment where others can be successful” (a variation of an existing definition).

Both leaders saw that their leadership was not about doing more “things.” It was about defining themselves properly from the beginning in order to better understand the things they needed to do. This then informed their role, tasks, decisions, activities, etc.

No Single Definition, and Rightly so

There is no one single definition of leadership because there is no one single leader. Leadership is deeply personal and individual. Each individual must have their own deeply personal definition as their center, refuge, and guide. This is one reason there may be as many definitions of leadership as there are leaders.


Brian Evje is a management consultant with the organizational-effectiveness practice Slalom Consulting and an advisory board member of Astia, a global not-for-profit dedicated to increasing women’s participation in high-growth businesses.

2 Replies to “Quick: Define Leadership by Brian Evje”

  1. Good timing, Bill. Sat through a “leadership” session last Monday, and one of the first things the presenter did was to flash the Webster / Oxford dictionary definitions of “leader” then he added one more “Someone who develops others into leaders”. Of all the definitions shared, this is the one which resonated with me the most, and when I look back at what I’ve done in my career, has probably steered most of my decisions and actions.

    Which brings me to the other point of Mr. Evje which I would like to highlight – his statement about the link between vision and definition…”A definition provides meaning; meaning reveals purpose; and meaning and purpose combine to inform your identity. Identity enables a vision of the future–the direction in which (leadership) is oriented.” The parentheses are mine as whatever needs a definition can be inserted there. The reason I want to jump on this is because too many groups no longer take the time to agree common definitions or “operational definitions”. There was a time when doing this was “hot”. Everyone saw, understood, and felt the value in this exercise. Now, unfortunately, I’ve actually heard people say, “That is so 80’s.” While Dr. Deming and TQM are no longer today’s faddish flavor, operational definitions are still required in order for groups, communities and organizations to exist and function. To not have the continuous dialog to create, nurture, and strengthen a common language is to not satisfy the basic human need for socialization and normalization. Without this there can be no progress.

    So, yes, I look forward to the neo-DeMarconian definition of leadership and the ensuing dialog.

    1. Thanks Roger, great words and I am totally convinced one can not lead without vision and we do not do anything close to a good job teaching or rewarding that in the military. With 24 month command gigs how can we? Just finished reading Tom Ricks’ Generals…if nothing else read the first and last chapter…that theme resonates throughout. I understand the tension between leaving folks in command too long, but I believe a flexible 24-36 month rotation scheduled might help…at least as an initial step.

      I know that’s not 100% where you were going, but just some DeMarco Banter, always appreciate your comments…I ponder them often. I still have your email with the LID question I’m stewing over.

      Thanks Roger.

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