What Is Leadership?

By Brad Bell

Leadership is an important concept in psychology.  What is leadership?   One important question concerns how to define leadership.  There are many possible leadership definitions.  In this article, I wish to provide a leadership definition that is different from many other possible definitions of leadership.   This may help in thinking in creative ways about leadership.

A Definition of Leadership:

Leadership is the collaborative process of developing and implementing ideas to achieve positive change in an organization.

There are some important elements of the above definition.  First, leadership is perceived to involve a thoughtful process of developing good ideas.  Leadership development is about learning to develop good ideas.  Leadership is not simply the process of communicating and implementing a vision or plan.  It would not matter whether there is someone in an organization who can effectively implement a vision or plan if the ideas that are part of the vision or plan are not likely to produce positive change in the organization.  Ideas may sound convincing, but they may be too simplistic, based on faulty assumptions, or fail to take into account all relevant variables.  The foundation of good leadership is good ideas.  The process of selecting ideas must involve extensive critical evaluation.  The ideas should reflect a full-scale model of organizational change.  This model should be comprehensive, based on research findings, and involve a complete analysis of the causal relationships among the variables.

Second, leadership is perceived to be a collaborative process.  Leadership may often be viewed as reflecting the influence of one particular person.  In contrast, the above definition suggests that positive outcomes may be a product of the collaborative efforts of a number of individuals (team leadership).   No one person may be able to develop all of the possible ideas about organizational change.  Sometimes the best ideas are an integration of ideas from a number of individuals.  Organizations should strive to consider ideas from everyone in the organization.  All ideas should be evaluated using the same objective standards (e.g., consistency with scientific evidence).  Evaluating all ideas using the same objective standards can be viewed as an element of authentic leadership.

Third, leadership is perceived to involve achieving positive change.  Leadership is not merely providing direction to maintain current standards or procedures.  Leadership is about striving for positive change that may involve creating new standards and procedures.  It may involve evaluating the culture of the organization to find ways to improve the culture.  It may also involve revising the vision and mission statements.   This element of the leadership definition provides insight concerning the leadership vs. Management distinction.  Leadership, but not management, may involve organizational change.