What Is the Definition of Leadership?

Sam Cook


What Is the Definition of Leadership?

Great leadership leads to highly successful teams, while poor leadership can increase employee stress, reduce team cohesion, and dramatically increase turnover. At times, it can feel like the minimum level of entry into a leadership position is perhaps too minimum. Yet those of us lucky enough to get a good leader find that those individuals more or less fit the very definition of leadership.

Unfortunately, too few workers enjoy the experience of working under or for someone who embodies good leadership. In fact, DDI’s Global Leadership Forecast 2023 reveals a rather worrying number reflecting a crisis of faith and confidence in leadership, as only 40% of leaders report that their company has high-quality leaders.

What does this mean for us? This should serve as a loud wake-up call to businesses and companies to take a step back and see how we define leadership and what makes an individual fit the mold that good leaders create.

In this post, we’re taking a deep dive into the definition of leadership and what sets apart those who lead with impact from those who simply hold a leadership position.

Definition of Leadership

Let’s start with the simplest question in this topic: What is leadership? 

McKinsey gives a fairly concise definition of “leadership” that’s easy to align with:

A set of behaviors used to help people align their collection direction (1), to execute strategic plans (2), and to continually renew an organization (3).

The beauty in this definition is that it’s a great launching point to better understand the behaviors that make someone effective within leadership positions. Naturally, those behaviors include leadership qualities, skills, and attributes, but distinctly come down to the things good and effective leaders do actively that ineffective ones do not.

To help people align their collective direction

Getting everyone on the same page is a big part of your job as a leader. Team members don’t always exist on the same page, either in thoughts or actions. Good leaders navigate interpersonal relationships and communicate goals in a way that gets everyone going and thinking in the same direction.

Leaders can hardly be faulted for getting frustrated while trying to align everyone around a collective direction. People can be stubborn, especially when those people are high-potential employees with leadership potential themselves.

To get around these human roadblocks, effective leaders provide clarity, vision, and inspiration to their team. They help their team members understand and embrace the organization’s mission through open communication, teamwork, and a shared sense of purpose.

To execute strategic plans

Vision without action is just a dream And being a leader means turning big plans into doable tasks.

Leaders are able to accomplish all of the following:

  • Develop and communicate a clear roadmap
  • Allocate resources
  • Delegate responsibilities
  • Establish accountability measures

Leaders are expected to make informed decisions, adapt strategies when necessary, and overcome obstacles to ensure the effective execution of plans.

To continually renew an organization

Good leaders encourage a learning mindset and promote ongoing development and improvement. This involves fostering a culture of innovation, adaptability, and growth within an organization. Companies can stay relevant, respond to evolving challenges, and seize opportunities for long-term success — as long as their workforce is encouraged to challenge the status quo, explore new ideas, and embrace continuous learning.

People in leadership have various tasks and responsibilities, from making critical and tough decisions and designating roles for the team members to overseeing the tasks of each individual and equipping the team with the tools necessary to accomplish their goals successfully.

The best way to create a pipeline of great leaders is to use mentorship. Check out our Mentoring Soundbites video on How to Use Mentorship in Your Leadership Development Plan. Be sure to like and subscribe, as well, to get new videos right in your inbox every Wednesday.

This is, however, only one example. The roles and responsibilities of those in leadership positions vary according to the type of organization. Leaders are not exclusive to companies and private organizations; a leader can also be present in other aspects of society, such as politics, religion, social-based groups, and many more. Most importantly, a leader should not be selected based on seniority; they should be chosen for the management and leadership skills they can demonstrate.

Why Is Leadership Important?

In the intro, we pointed out two consequences that leaders can have on their teams, one positive, one negative:

  1. Effective leaders directly influence strong company growth, higher revenue and profit, better worker productivity, and strong teams.
  2. Ineffective leaders directly lead to poor team performance, lower productivity and engagement, higher employee turnover, and overall team dissatisfaction.

It might seem hard to believe that one person can have such a powerful influence over a group of people. Then again, that’s just a living application of well-understood group dynamics.

The “good leader effect” is strong enough that Gallup even wrote about 5 Ways Managers Can Stop Employee Turnover. While employees do want strong connections with each other, their leaders play a special part. Managers can make or break careers. Managers help create team cultures that supportive and engaging, or exceptionally toxic.

As a leader, you influence the direction of your business entity or organization. It depends on how you communicate your vision with the rest of the team and the strategic decisions you make to get to that level.

Thus, leaders must possess a high level of competence and emotional intelligence to ensure they can identify the needs of their employees and solve problems quickly and properly. The best leaders are innovative thinkers who always look at new ideas that would drive the entire organization forward. They like to think ahead of the competition and always seek continuous improvement for themselves, the business processes, and those they lead.

Different leadership styles directly and significantly impact the type of work environment and how engaged the employees are in their respective roles.

10 Leadership Attributes That Define a Great Leader

There was a time when everyone assumed that “leadership” and “management” were interchangeable terms. However, our understanding of how leadership and management differ has become far more refined. One can manage without being a good leader. And one can be a leader without having to manage anything at all.

Instead, it’s best to think of leadership as an execution of traits and skills designed to help influence and guide the direction of a team. Meanwhile, management is maintaining, tracking, and following-up on tasks required to complete specific and measurable goals.

Keeping that in mind, here are 10 important attributes that help define good leadership.


Empathy is the ability to see things from others’ perspectives and feel their emotions. You don’t need to agree with someone when you are empathic; you just have to learn how to see things from their perspective so you can appreciate and understand how they feel about certain circumstances.

Empathy and sympathy are commonly confused. While it’s important that leaders be able to show both, you’ll need to understand how they differ, and why empathy is something you’re more likely to need on a day-to-day basis.  

  • Empathy is about showing someone you understand.
  • Sympathy is about expressing to someone your personal feelings of pity.

Put another way:

  • An empathetic leader will take the time to understand the root causes of why you’re struggling and make accommodations to help alleviate your problems based on that understanding.
  • Sympathetic leaders will tell you how sorry they are that you’re struggling

Empathy is one of the most important attributes of successful leaders as it enables you to relate to others, especially your employees.

Empathetic leaders lead with care and compassion for others.

Leadership roles become more and more critical in this modern workplace setting, especially in hybrid working environments. That is, empathy creates a non-hostile, truly collaborative space – virtual and beyond – since employees know their needs are factored into the leader’s strategic decisions. It also enables a leader to see the whole picture of a given situation, allowing them to factor in how others might feel about certain decisions and policies.

When it comes to what makes a great leader, “empathy” is what nearly 14,000 leaders across industries and cultures worldwide perceive the most as great leadership, according to the DDI report we mentioned in the intro.


Persuading people is difficult. Just as Aristotle (after you invent a time machine, that is), whose pivotal work Rhetoric, is still required reading in many academic circles today. People are complex creatures and, as noted earlier, incredibly stubborn.

It’s no wonder the renowned writer and thinker in leadership studies, Warren Bennis, wrote a book called Managing People Is Like Herding Cats. Don’t be scared by the title here, based on our discussion separating leadership from management. Bennis’ key point in his book was that to get the best results, you need to lead, not manage.

A good leader is a persuasive leader.

Much like herding cats, you can’t just tell them to do something and expect it to happen. Persuasion is needed. For people, your ability to communicate reasons behind decisions and influence your team is integral to succeeding in the leadership role.

A team meeting in an office room speaking on the definition of leadership.

Persuasion is a powerful attribute of great leaders since it enables you to make decisions with convictions. When you adopt and implement an idea, you follow it through and compel others to do the same. To earn the trust of your employees, you must project a degree of authenticity and authority. In turn, you instill confidence in your people that the decisions are made for the betterment of the entire organization.

But persuasion does not mean insisting on one’s ideas.

Instead, decisions are made according to the consensus of the group. A persuasive leader won’t make any decisions that benefit only some groups but disadvantage others.


The higher the career ladder you climb, the less you talk and the more you listen. A good leader is a good listener. Active listening, in particular, is the attribute of the most successful leaders.

Good listening skills require that you seek the input of your team to get a pulse on their needs and concerns. Attentive leaders are open to criticism and seek continuous improvement, especially if it benefits the entire organization. The overall goal of active listening is to achieve mutual understanding for all parties involved and to encourage an open dialogue.

There are three main types of listening: superficial, reactive, and productive. Attentive leaders should practice productive listening, and here’s why.

  • Superficial: Listening but not showing interest and commitment to what is being said, which achieves nothing as far as addressing organizational issues and concerns.
  • Reactive: This is polarising since you don’t comprehend what is being said but are already formulating how you will respond to what is being said.
  • Productive: This, here, is what leaders must strive for since it inspires trust and encourage communication with others, even if you don’t agree with their opinion or ideas.


Foresight refers to forecasting future trends or identifying relevant opportunities. It refers to a leader’s ability to anticipate downturns and respond promptly.

While (most) leaders aren’t soothsayers and fortune tellers no fortune tellers, foreseeing difficulties and anticipating challenges before they happen are an important part of the job. It’s arguably almost impossible to have complete control over unexpected situations, but foresightful leadership allows taking strategic risks and decisions that would ultimately benefit the organization.

Leaders with foresight are not content with maintaining the status quo; they are forward thinkers who constantly seek new ideas and innovate. The goal is to influence and inspire others to adopt a similar mindset, allowing team members to gain a competitive edge.


Leaders do not coerce their subordinates or followers, nor are they controlling. Stewardship is when you put aside your self-interest and make decisions that benefit the whole organization.

When you lead with stewardship in mind, you foster trust and loyalty from your employees. It also encourages them to be open to you about their thoughts and ideas, making them highly motivated to make their own decisions.

Stewards are individuals who think about the future and how their actions impact others. This sense of awareness makes them more mindful of their decisions and choices. Stewardship as a leadership attribute is about utilizing the trust given to you to steward the organizational resources (e.g., material, intellectual, human, and emotional assets) and accomplish the organizational goals.

Building community

Great leadership is about building a community filled with hope and purpose. It is a common attribute of inspirational leaders that can motivate others to find meaning in what they do and achieve a sense of purpose, knowing they are contributing to a better good.

Building community as a leader is only possible when you establish a non-toxic work environment. The workplace is the starting point for the community wherein you look at each team member as an equal rather than your subordinate. As a result, you give everyone equal opportunities for growth to contribute something of value to the organization and the community they are a part of.

A mentoring example of employees in a meeting room talking about leadership

A sense of community only happens when everyone in the team can openly share, communicate, collaborate, and inspire each other. An inclusive workplace starts with a good leadership approach.


Conflict is inevitable in any group of people working together or in an organization. Therefore, a leader must set a good example in fostering healthy relationships within the workplace.

Healing leadership takes control in resolving conflicts and bringing harmony to the workplace by inviting the team towards healing. As a leader, you become a mediator of conflict to unite the team as you work toward a shared vision.

Healing leaders inspire team members to be vulnerable and open without fear of being judged or ridiculed. At the same time, they motivate employees to take accountability for their own actions. The desire to avoid and resolve conflict is a two-way street. It applies to the leader and how they lead others in their team


When things are constantly changing, having no awareness can be considered ignorant. Self-aware does not happen overnight, but it is something that leaders can and have to develop.

Practicing awareness requires letting go of preconceived notions and biases to maintain an open mind and appreciate a new way of seeing things. It allows a leader to take advantage of the opportunities and challenges that arise in an organization.

Aware leaders are in tune with themselves and their environment, enabling them to identify their tendencies and work on how they react to external stimuli. This way, they react and respond to circumstances in the best way possible because they have considered all internal and external factors

Big picture

Seeing the big picture is critical for the success of an effective leader. Rapid globalization requires almost all leaders to think globally without neglecting the local impact of their decisions. Taking the big picture as a factor when making decisions allows leaders to explore their options instead of looking at things in a particular way.

Leading with the big picture lets you perceive correlations between things, even when no prior relationship is apparent. This perspective offers a unique understanding of situations. Leaders who see the big picture turn complex issues into simple concepts. At the same time, they understand how small decisions and actions can impact the entire organization.

This deep level of analysis and thinking can serve leaders well, especially if they want to stay competitive in a rapidly changing business landscape.

Helping others grow

Leaders set goals for themselves and for others. When you lead, your goal is to empower those around you so they can also improve and do better.

Growth-oriented leaders can see the full potential of others and encourage them to find ways to improve their skills, enabling them to reach the next step in their careers. 

By continuously improving themselves and setting a good example for others, leaders inspire others never to stop seeking new skills and striving to be better. 

Leaders must shift the focus from the self to others to make this happen. You provide people opportunities to showcase their full potential and maximize their capabilities. This is the attribute that distinguishes a great leader from a successful leader. You become a mentor, equipping people with the right tools and skills they need to succeed.

Great Programs Are a Defining Feature of Effective Leadership

As you reflect on the multifaceted attributes of leadership, remember this: leadership is not simply a position or title, but a transformative journey. It’s a journey that requires working on and improving yourself in order to inspire those around you.

Leadership is about empowering others to grow and reach their full potential, and, ultimately, true success lies in the growth and accomplishments of those you lead.

Formal leadership mentoring and performance coaching are among the top 5 sought-after learning and development experiences. Getting those types of programs off the ground aren’t easy, and getting them right is even harder. Book a demo today and see how your company can create a world-class leadership pipeline.

Sam Cook

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