What is Leadership: 18 Definition of Leadership from the Experts

I’ve been writing about leadership for more than two years now. And in all that time, I haven’t really explored the question “What is leadership?” I know that I’ve posted a lot of thoughts and experiences about leadership. But I haven’t really written anything extensive about the matter. In today’s post, I decided to write about this topic.

What is leadership?

A first glance at the term “leadership”, anybody would say that it refers to the act of leading. When you are leading, you need to have followers and you are moving towards a certain direction in pursuit of a certain goal.  Yet, leadership is not solely about position or the imposition of the leader’s will over his or her subordinates. It’s not easy to come up with a leadership definition. Instead, we need to look at what the experts have said and analyze them to better understand what leadership is.

To help us understand leadership better, I did a little bit of research and consulted some authors, leaders and writers about it. Below are 18 leadership quotes from the world’s leadership experts.

Leadership: Authority and Influence

“The only definition of a leader is someone who has followers.” – Peter Drucker

At its core, leadership assumes, of course, that you have followers. Why would people willingly follow you? It has something to do with leadership traits they found in you, or if they want what you are advocating. This statement from Peter Drucker probably applies best to charismatic leaders. These types of leaders are easy to follow—people could readily identify with the leader; they want to protect the leader and do his/her bidding.

Likewise leaders who hold leadership positions in organizations have an automatic following—the people who belongs to the organization has to follow him or her. They don’t need to like it, in fact some people will follow grudgingly and unwillingly.

Wouldn’t it be better if people followed a leader willingly and happily? This leads us to the next definition.

“Leadership is influence – nothing more, nothing less.” – John C. Maxwell

John Maxwell did away with the need for leaders to hold positions of authority. Instead, he focused on a particular skill or ability—influence. If you have influence, you don’t need fancy position titles, you don’t need coercion, and you definitely don’t need to force people to follow you. Instead, with your influence, you could convince people to follow you.

Perhaps, this is especially true for charismatic leaders. They enjoy the popular support of the people they lead. For one reason or another, it is enough for a charismatic leader to show up and rally his followers toward a particular cause.

A leader without influence wouldn’t last long. If a leader relied only on authority or position to move people, then he would not be able to lead well. The good news is, aspiring leaders can learn the art of influencing people.

“Leadership is the art of getting someone else to do something you want done because he wants to do it.” — Dwight D. Eisenhower

If we took the concept of influence further, it means involving other people, inspiring them and motivating them to do things that they are happy to do. When such a convergence occurs, then leadership is successful.

Former US President Eisenhower definitely understood this concept when he uttered the statement above. It takes leadership to know what people want and what they love, and align that with the leader’s vision so as to produce results. It has also been said that leaders can find ten individuals who could do the work with him.

The challenge for leaders therefore is to align the followers’ individual motivations and intents and merge that with the organization’s vision.

“Leadership is not magnetic personality, that can just as well be a glib tongue. It is not “making friends and influencing people”, that is flattery. Leadership is lifting a person’s vision to higher sights, the raising of a person’s performance to a higher standard, the building of a personality beyond its normal limitations.” — Peter F. Drucker

Another statement from Peter Drucker. This time, he explored further the task of a leader—and that is to inspire people to dream big, and promote excellence. The key concept here is “higher sights” and “beyond limitations.”

The next statement, related to the one said by Drucker, also highlights the importance of empowering followers and subordinates.

“The leader is one who mobilizes others toward a goal shared by leaders and followers. … Leaders, followers and goals make up the three equally necessary supports for leadership.” — Gary Wills

Leadership is not only about achieving one’s personal goals and ambitions, it is also about helping followers and subordinates develop their potentials for greatness. As the leader rises and moves toward his vision, he also brings with him the followers who believe in him. Put in another way, leadership means empowering followers so they could become agents for the accomplishment of goals.

Effective leadership requires collaboration between the leaders and the followers. There are times that leadership will demand a lot from the followers. But leaders should know the best way to bring out the best from people.



leadership definition

All leadership, however, should begin with oneself. Any person who wants to be a leader needs to have a great degree of discipline. Leaders are also committed to learning and self-improvement. Warren Bennis effectively outlined effective leadership, which consists of five key practices and principles.

“Leadership is a function of knowing yourself, having a vision that is well communicated, building trust among colleagues, and taking effective action to realize your own leadership potential.” – Warren Bennis

First, know yourself. Socrates said that the unexamined life is not worth living. That’s doubly true for any leader. As a leader, you need to know your strengths to maximize them, and your weaknesses, so you could minimize and deal with them. Without a good knowledge of yourself, you could not know if you are effective or not, and if you are achieving your goals or not.

Have a vision. A verse from the Bible says: “the people perish for lack of vision.” A vision will direct your steps and your direction. It’s like a roadmap. Or better yet, it’s like the rails that a train follows. Without a roadmap, you could easily move in circles—perpetually busy but not really achieving anything significant.

Communicate the vision. It’s not enough to have a vision. You need to promote it. Sell it. And have buy in from the people who matter. When you communicate your vision, you also generate excitement and anticipation, knowing that you are doing something good, and that you have a roadmap to follow.

Build trust. This is where the buy-in comes in. If your people trust you—in your abilities, your vision, and in your capabilities, you can practically do anything that would help achieve your vision.

Take effective action. Once you have defined the vision, you’ve communicated it, built trust among your followers and colleagues, it’s time to take the plunge. Great leaders know how to take risks—they take calculated risks that will move them closer to success.

Warren Bennis further said that “leadership is the capacity to translate vision to reality.” From dreams to reality! That would be an awesome journey!

“Control is not leadership; management is not leadership; leadership is leadership. If you seek to lead, invest at least 50% of your time in leading yourself—your own purpose, ethics, principles, motivation, conduct. Invest at least 20% leading those with authority over you and 15% leading your peers.”— Dee Hock, Founder and CEO Emeritus, Visa


Again, the importance of learning and leading yourself is very important. If you have a system that helps you become a better leader, you can then inspire others to do the same. If you define your purpose, your sense of ethics, the principles you stand for; and you understand your source of motivation, you can rise up above any obstacles that come your way. Not just that, you can inspire your followers to do as you have done.

But the question is, how do you keep growing and developing as a leader? Given the busy schedules of executives and leaders these days, it is sometimes a wonder how they can find time to dedicate in reading a book or attending a leadership seminar. But these aren’t the only ways to learn as a leader.

They say that experience is still the best teacher.

Yes, that’s true but there’s a caveat. You should always reflect on your experiences, identify the important lessons you should learn and then keep those lessons in your mind and in your heart.

“Before you are a leader, success is all about growing yourself. When you become a leader, success is all about growing others.” — Jack Welch

Don’t stop at growing yourself though. The importance of coaching and mentoring has been highlighted in recent years. In fact, it is being credited as one of the most important factors of success by young leaders. When you have grown to a certain level, then it becomes your responsibility to train and grow others.

As you become more popular with different kinds of people, there are people who will look up to you for leadership, guidance and assistance in their own growth. Don’t hesitate to help others who are just starting out. You were also a newbie once before. This time, as a leader you need to look after the people in your organization. How are they growing? Are you empowering them? Are you giving them enough challenges and tips to develop as leaders in their own right?

When you empower others to become better leaders, you also help yourself. This means that there are more people who can succeed you when you decide to move on to do other things. This also means that you can trust more people to do the job with you. And you can certainly become better at the art of delegation.

Servant Leadership


The following definition of leadership relates to one particular theory—servant leadership.

“The first responsibility of a leader is to define reality. The last is to say thank you. In between, the leader is a servant.” — Max DePree

“Servant leadership is easy for people with high self-esteem. . . Servant leadership builds self-esteem and encourages Individual growth while obtaining the organization’s objectives.” ~ Ken Blanchard

Can you imagine the CEO of your company brewing and preparing coffee for you? Unthinkable right? But a good servant leader has enough self confidence and self-esteem that he won’t mind it at all! Especially in startups and young companies, the leader at the top is also a working leader—he or she is also a salesperson, a marketing gal, and an all-around company person.

The best image of a servant leader that comes to my mind is that of Jesus Christ washing the feet of his disciples. And it supports the discussion above in that by being a servant leader, you show your people that leadership is NOT about positions, it is about working and serving and doing everything that will lead to the accomplishment of your goals and the over-arching vision.

Problem-solving and Visioning


“All of the great leaders have had one characteristic in common: it was the willingness to confront unequivocally the major anxiety of their people in their time. This, and not much else, is the essence of leadership.” — John Kenneth Galbraith

We live in a world where the tried-and-tested ways of doing things are seriously being challenged. Innovators, entrepreneurs and heretics are on the rise. They respect almost no boundaries, they take risks, they have a high tolerance for mistakes and failures.

And guess what, from industry to industry, they are changing the world!

These days, there are so many anxieties and problems that confront the world today—climate change, the digital divide, extreme poverty, and hunger among others all over the world. As Galbraith said, great leaders need to think about ways to solve these problems. And you know what, some of these problems are already being solved thanks to the power of social businesses and social entrepreneurship.

In a Stanford Ecorner talk by Ted Zoller of the Kauffman Foundation, he said:

“Necessity is the mother of innovation… I feel extraordinarily bullish about the future of our world because we have gigantic challenges and we have your generation who’s serious about solving those challenges. I’m really excited about the future of entrepreneurship because I honestly think that’s one of the key to society’s greatest problems.”

Who knows, we could probably solve a LOT of the problems of the world in the coming years by using the principles of business and entrepreneurship.

“The task of the leader is to get his people from where they are to where they have not been.” — Henry Kissinger

One of the important tasks of a leader is to challenge followers and empower them to defy their limits. The best entrepreneurs and leaders have erased the word “Impossible” from their vocabulary. Why? Because they have discovered that “impossible” is just a word that limits their thinking. Things that were thought of to be impossible in the 1800s are commonplace in the year 2000s. Who knows what else we can invent and develop in the coming years?

Do you feel stuck in your present role in your organization or in your business? Then you probably lack leadership. Leaders are able to get themselves and their organizations out of a funk and lead them to new heights, new places with new ways of doing things. Sometimes, it doesn’t even have to be an entirely new thing as long as it does the job!

“To lead people, walk beside them … As for the best leaders, the people do not notice their existence. The next best, the people honor and praise. The next, the people fear; and the next, the people hate … When the best leader’s work is done the people say, ‘We did it ourselves!'” — Lao-tsu

Leadership, however, is not about assigning tasks to people and then meeting them again after two months to accept reports. In some cases that could work. But often, though, what employees and followers need is a leader who would walk with them through the process.

Some leaders are more hands on than others. In certain teams and organizations, a leader could just assemble a team, they would agree on tasks and deliverables, work hard and then get back together a couple of weeks after and assess the progress of what they’re working on. That scenario works if the members of the team have a great teamwork: their strengths are maximized; their weaknesses are complemented by other team members; and they empower each other.

“Great leaders are almost always great simplifiers, who can cut through argument, debate, and doubt to offer a solution everybody can understand.” — General Colin Powell

Complexity is an increasing issue in the workplace today. There are just too many stimuli, too many problems, too many factors to consider to make the most meaningful decisions. But leaders know how to break down ideas and problems into their component parts and make them understandable, palatable even, to the members or followers who will need to deal with these problems.

Sometimes, though, the leader also needs to struggle with the followers in order to arrive at the best possible solution. A leader can be an idea generator, or he could be a facilitator, enabling the group to come up with several possible solutions to the problems.

“You don’t lead by pointing and telling people some place to go. You lead by going to that place and making a case.” — Ken Kesey

An absentee leader could not command the loyalty of the followers. If it were any indication, the greatest leaders during the World War II knew what it was like to struggle and fight for freedom. Winston Churchill had to endure the bombing of London, and Dwight Eisenhower was at the forefront of military tactics and strategy. Churchill’s career as a Prime Minister became so remarkable that history remembered him as one of the leaders who turned the tide of World War II. Eisenhower eventually became the US President. When you, as a leader, knew what it takes, you can capture the emotions, the imagination, the loyalty and even the love of your followers.

“Leadership is the ability to establish standards and manage a creative climate where people are self-motivated toward the mastery of long term constructive goals, in a participatory environment of mutual respect, compatible with personal values.”— Mike Vance

Mike Vance’s statement highlighted several important aspects of leadership that every good leader needs to be mindful of:

Set standards. Without standards or milestones, how would you know that you are making progress? Standards help you understand your strengths and your weaknesses, as well as that of the people around you and the organization as a whole.

Manage a creative climate. Creativity is powered by curiosity and both are badly needed in today’s knowledge economy. Creativity is no longer the exclusive domain of artists and creative personality types. Instead, more and more leaders and rank-and-file followers are joining the creativity bandwagon. It’s this creative ferment that an effective leader should effectively manage!

Motivation. It’s no longer enough to appeal to the sense of duty of followers and colleagues. Motivation appeals to their sense of passion, idealism and personality. When your followers are motivated, they can do pretty much anything, and they would willingly go the extra mile just to get the job done for you and for the organization.

Mastery of goals. Being passionate is good. But if it is not tempered by reality, and not broken down into goals, you won’t be able to achieve your overarching vision. Everyone in the organization, therefore, needs to master the goals and the attendant vision and mission of the organization. By mastery, I don’t mean to say that they should memorize the goals, but it should become part of what you and they do.

Participatory environment. Organizations are setting up their offices in such a way that sharing and participation are embedded. They no longer have big offices for executives and top management. Instead, the supervisors and managers are free to mingle and interact with “ordinary” employees just to help each other and discuss business-related ideas, news and whatnot.

Mutual respect and values convergence. When there’s participation, interaction and engagement, people learn to respect each other and there’s a convergence of values, and when there’s convergence of values, it’s easier to move in the right direction.

“Leadership is not so much about technique and methods as it is about opening the heart. Leadership is about inspiration—of oneself and of others. Great leadership is about human experiences, not processes. Leadership is not a formula or a program, it is a human activity that comes from the heart and considers the hearts of others. It is an attitude, not a routine.” — Lance Secretan

It’s very easy for leaders to focus on results and deliverables; not so easy to focus on the welfare of the followers. Oftentimes, emotions and heart matters are even stripped out in the boardroom or office and a lot of leaders are not making room for love.

Why? Perhaps because more leaders follow Machiavelli’s Prince and not Ken Blanchard’s One Minute Leader.

leadership definitionsFor a leader to become truly great, he or she needs to help followers open up their hearts, be inspired and aspire for greater things. When leaders start talking more about people and not program; about matters of aspiration, and not mere results, the leader has elevated himself to a whole new level of leadership. Likewise, he shall have lifted up the followers to a higher level of purpose and existence.

And that leads to the next statement about what is leadership.

“A leader is a dealer in hope.” — Napoleon Bonaparte

Hope is an inherent human emotion. Nay, it’s more than an emotion, it is a basic human need as essential as the water we drink and the air we breathe. Hope assures us that the sun will rise again tomorrow. Hope gives us the strength to endure adverse circumstances; hope enables us to rise to greater heights, even if we are at the deepest trenches of the ocean; hope inspires us; and hope enables us to believe in a future that is far better than we have now.

And it is the leader who can deal that kind of hope to the people. Napoleon was probably thinking of political leaders when he uttered this statement. But it is true no matter what industry you’re in. If you’re in the corporate world, your followers still need hope—hope that what they do matters, not just for themselves, but for the organization, and society, too! For those in the social development sector, the importance of hope in leadership is even more pronounced. Without hope for a better tomorrow, how can followers and workers continue working through seemingly insurmountable odds just to help ease poverty and social development?

If you’re in a leadership position now, how are you dealing hope to your followers?

“Leaders conceive and articulate goals that lift people out of their petty preoccupations and unite them in pursuit of objectives worthy of their best efforts.” — John Gardner

Leaders can exist in a higher level of existence because they have a vision that they want to achieve. As part of that pursuit, they are able to let go of tasks and other activities that are not part of their pursuit of their vision. Same thing is true when they inspire their followers to pursue the vision, the followers are inspired and motivated. And as a result, they can also forget lesser ideals and go for the main thing! They can easily let go of any hindrances and instead work tirelessly for the vision they have accepted as their own.

Unity is also essential. Charismatic leaders are not the only ones who can inspire followers to help them achieve their vision. Other kinds of leaders can also inspire people to adopt a vision as their own. That vision will become a fire in the belly that will spread like wildfire in the organization to energize it and propel it forward, closer and closer to the achievement of the vision.


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  1. Excellent job done by compiling effective quotes of various leaders and with a suitable follow up explanation.

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