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There are tens of thousands of definitions of leadership.  These range from John Maxwell’s one-word definition (“Leadership is one word and one word only- influence”) to sixty-word definitions that attempt to capture (unsuccessfully) everything there is to know about leadership.  However, the two most important definitions of leadership are your organization’s definition and your personal definition.

Developing a personal definition of leadership is important because the reflective process will help you clarify what you think about leadership.  Your definition should be action-oriented by including the action verbs that describe your leadership behavior.  Additionally, it should help you clarify the three Rs of leadership:

           Results: Leaders must get results.  Working with and through people by influencing their efforts, leaders get things done and produce something of value.  Leaders understand what needs to be done and inspire shared aspirations.  Results are missional.

          Roles: To get things done requires a division of labor and coordinated or collaborative efforts.  Therefore, everyone working towards accomplishing shared aspirations has a role to play – a unique and specific task to accomplish.  For leaders, their role is to lead, which means they inspire, encourage, and enable.  Roles are transactional.

          Relationships: People working together are in a relationship.  Leadership is about the relationship between the leader and the led.  The important thing about being a leader rather than simply being a manager is that the leader seeks to make it a healthy, productive, and rewarding relationship.  Relationships are transformational.

All the above may be summarized in John Maxwell’s Law of Leadership #14: “The Law of Buy-in:  People buy into their leaders, then into the vision.” ‘Buying into’ refers to the relationship.  ‘Into their leader’ refers to the roles, and ‘into the vision’ refers to results.

Worthy causes do not get things done; people get things done, and people get things done when they are following worthy leaders who promote worthwhile causes.  Therefore, leadership is important.  People want strong leaders who cause them to succeed.

Leadership is a relationship and all aspects of healthy relationships apply:

  • Communication and Trust
  • Respect and Support
  • Inspiration and Encouragement

Examples of Leadership Definitions

The following is not an exhaustive list of leadership definitions; there are other viable and insightful definitions.  We provide the following list to stimulate discussion and to stimulate or prompt your thinking about your personal definition of leadership.

  • The art of mobilizing others to want to struggle for shared aspirations. (by Kouzes and Posner, The Leadership Challenge).  The key words of this definition are:

Art: Leadership is not just knowledge of the theory; it is the application of knowledge and insight in daily situations with consistency and flexibility.

Mobilizing: Leaders gather resources – money, material, manpower – and get them moving in the right direction.

Want to Struggle: Excellence is a choice of making an effort and getting the results.  Leaders inspire or prompt others to choose to be excellent.

Shared Aspirations: Leaders give their people the context for their effort and results.  They set and communicate clear and compelling vision, goals, and objectives.


  • Influence (by John Maxwell, Developing the Leader Within You)
  • Leadership is the ability of a superior to influence the behavior of a subordinate or group and persuade them to follow a particular course of action. (by Chester Bernard)
  • Leadership is the art of influencing others to accomplish a mission by providing purpose, direction, and motivation. (US Army)
  • Leadership is the art to of influencing and directing people in such a way that will win their obedience, confidence, respect and loyal cooperation in achieving common objectives. (US Air Force)
  • 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 leadership potential. (by Warren Bennis)

To complete the exercise download the worksheet.