I believe “the best” definition of leadership does not exist. There is not one agreed upon definition in the world despite how much leadership has been studied and written about. The last time I searched Amazon for books on leadership there were over 80,000 results.
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According to Warren Bennis in Leaders (1997) “academic analysis has given us more than 850 definitions of leadership”.
I think it is fair to say that defining leadership will be studied and debated for a long time to come and it is likely we will never all agree on THE BEST definition of leadership. Although that is the question I have been asked and challenged about the most.
In one of the early posts I wrote when I started the Random Acts of Leadership blog over 10 years ago, I offered this as one of my preferred definitions of leadership:
“Leadership is translating vision into reality” by Warren Bennis.
A good friend who is a highly successful entrepreneur and CEO wrote to me after reading that article having spent a good deal of time reading what I wrote, thinking and searching the internet trying to help me do a better job of defining leadership.
Why? Because she strongly believes that “Vision is not a catalyst for leadership.” Essentially, the definition I had offered in her worldview was just wrong. Yet the most interesting thing of all was that everything she said to make her point completely validated what I was trying to say to begin with about leadership and leading.
Could a Definition Actually be Getting in the Way?
So why do we keep trying to define it?
People seems to expect you to be able to define the thing you are writing about or teaching so naturally I had been offering one. But definitions rarely help you understand and/or do the very thing you are trying to define.
For example, I can define balance, but does that help me to achieve the balance necessary to ride a bicycle? In the case of leadership I have never seen a definition that has helped anyone instantly know how to lead.
What do we seek when we ask for a definition? I think we are seeking “the truth” about it. Yet trying to define leadership is a bit like trying to define beauty: it has many interpretations, although we know it when we see it. It is also said that beauty is in the eyes of the beholder. In fact, beauty does not look the same in all cultures and perhaps neither does leadership. This points to the power of context in shaping our interpretations of “truth” about anything, including leadership.
What could be more useful than a definition of leadership?
The notion of a “random act of leadership” is my attempt to take leadership out of the realm of theory and develop a rich context for leading that can give EVERYONE access to leading in their day to day work and lives regardless of their position or title.
My goal is to empower more and more people to see and to seize opportunities to lead more readily and more often in their everyday work and life.
Rather than defining leadership as a concept, my focus has been on identifying the specific actions anyone who wants to lead can take to amplify their impact. Rather than waiting for “the” leaders to make things happen, I want to open peoples minds and hearts to the possibility that they can make an even bigger difference here and now in the things that matter to them regardless of their current position or title.
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What Does Leadership Look Like in Action?
I realized that given the richness of the theory of leadership and how the theory and context has evolved throughout history, summing up the definition of leadership into one simple statement that could be “the best definition of leadership” might be a tall order with little return. Instead I started asking a different question: What does leadership look like in action?
I started asking that question because I encountered so many people who loved learning about the theory of leadership, but were often left with one very simple question after the excitement of the discussion faded away – how do I DO leadership?
After years of inquiry here is my answer to the simple question: what does leadership look like in action?
“Leadership is speaking up, stepping up, and standing up to make a difference in something that matters to you and makes a difference for others.” Susan Mazza
If you want to elevate your leadership from wherever you are right now, whether you are a seasoned leader, just getting started, or somewhere in between, you need to be able to see opportunities in the everyday moments when you can make a difference so you can take action.
Leaders are developed by committing one act of leadership at a time over time. It really is that simple! What act of leadership will you commit next to make a difference in what matters to you and makes a difference for others?