What is a leader?
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.