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.

Empathy and Leadership

  By Brad Bell

Leadership involves the development and implementation of plans and strategies to achieve positive results for an organization.   What are the attributes of a leader that may help to achieve positive results?    In this article, I will argue that empathy is a key attribute that helps a leader to achieve positive results.

Empathy can be conceptualized as the ability to understand and vicariously experience what another person is experiencing.   If you are experiencing empathy, you see things from the person’s perspective, and experience the same emotional state as the person.  

Greater empathy in a leader may foster effective leadership for a number of reasons.   In this article, I will present two possible reasons.   First, greater empathy may increase altruistic motivation, and greater altruistic motivation may lead to making more decisions that reflect the common good.   Second, increased empathy in a leader may increase the leader’s helping behavior, which in turn, may lead to helping behaviors becoming the norm in the organization.                                  

Altruistic Motivation and the Common Good

A person can be described as altruistically motivated if the person is motivated to help others.  Feeling empathy may increase altruistic motivation.   Empathy may foster concern for the welfare for another person.   If a person is altruistically motivated, the person may be more likely to make decisions that reflect the common good of the organization. The person may make a greater effort at finding win-win solutions, and have a greater understanding of what would reflect the common good.

 Making decisions that reflect the common good of the organization can be considered to be an indication of effective leadership.   If a decision reflects the common good, then many people in the organization may be happy with the decision. 

Helping Behavior and Norms

 Greater empathy may increase helping behavior.   Einolf (2008) found that empathic concern was positively correlated with some helping behaviors (e.g., giving to a charity).   However, because these findings are correlational, one cannot make causal conclusions  from the findings.

If a leader is more helpful, then others in the organization may also increase their helping behaviors. This may reflect observational learning.  Eventually, helping behaviors may become the norm in the organization.  This could result in more cooperation, and more cooperation in an organization may result in being able to achieve more positive outcomes.


 Einolf, C. J. (2008). Empathic concern and prosocial behaviors: A test of experimental results using survey data.  Social Science Research, 37, 1267-1279.