What is a leader?

 In Leadership, Management

I was watching some cartoon shorts on the streaming service Disney+ when I came across a seemingly simple, yet thought provoking question:

What is a leader?

The question was posed by Forky, the talking spork, as part of the series ‘Forky Asks a Question’.

Now the answer provided was not particularly thought-provoking itself, which is consistent with a children’s series also covering such hard-hitting topics as “What is cheese?”.

Dolly, the doll and self-described leader of Bonnie’s toys, defines a leader as a person who takes charge and makes decisions for everyone.

Not the worst definition, but it doesn’t fully cover what a leader does. Making decisions is meaningless if others aren’t inspired to follow the decisions, or if the decisions don’t relate to a meaningful goal.

So, I searched around for a more thorough definition. I found, perhaps surprisingly for a concept that is used so often, that it’s actually hard to holistically define.

The best definition I found for my concept of leadership was from author Kevin Kruse in an article for Forbes. His definition for leadership is:

Leadership is a process of social influence, which maximizes the efforts of others, towards the achievement of a goal.

Kevin notes the following elements of his definition:

  • Leadership stems from social influence, not authority or power
  • Leadership requires others, and that implies they don’t need to be “direct reports”
  • No mention of personality traits, attributes, or even a title; there are many styles, and many paths, to effective leadership
  • It includes a goal, not influence with no intended outcome
  • Lastly, what makes this definition so different from many of the academic definitions out there is the inclusion of “maximizes the efforts”.

It’s interesting that such a wordy definition is required for this concept. I think it stems from the fact that so many people have misconceptions around what leadership is. Having the title of a leader doesn’t make someone a leader.

Being a leader is about actions and efforts, and how that inspires and encourages others to achieve something meaningful.

But try explaining that to a spork.

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