Leadership – What is it?

Adapted from Northouse, Peter. Leadership: Theory and Practice. 6th ed. Thousand Oaks: SAGE, 2013. (6th ed.), p. 7-8.

Defining Leadership

There are probably more definitions for leadership than people who research the topic. (Stogdill, 1974, p. 7) In fact, most leaders probably have some version of their own.

Many of the definitions seem to revolve around one central concept – leadership as relationship, leadership as position, leadership as management, and many many more. However, Peter Northouse, basing his perspective on John Kotter, suggests that leadership is much more than relationship or position. (Northouse, 2013, p. 7-8 and Kotter 1990, p. 3- 8) And he points out that it is based on more than inherent traits – which was one of the main perspectives used to seek out leaders and was used to explain leadership for quite some time.

What has become abundantly clear is that leadership is waaay more complex than most people want to believe. And that understanding leadership – and becoming an effective leader – requires learning about multiple dimensions, styles, and approaches to leadership.

But what is leadership?

Northouse suggests that leadership is a process of one individual influencing a group towards some common goal. (p. 5) By using process, not relationship, Northouse, and Kotter before him make a crucial point. While part of the process is the relationship, position, roles, skills, and styles, these are not all that leadership is.

For our purposes, I would like to reconsider this definition for a moment.

First, because most people think of leaders as individuals, but we may also use the term leader in relation to a company, organization, or state with the inherent implication that leadership is taking place.

When a board of directors engages HR, Finance, Marketing, Sales, Customer Success, IT, R&D, and more, they are trying to get these inherently different units to work together for a mutual purpose. Likewise, when the Defense Department utilizes land forces, air forces, naval forces, cyber forces, and more to engage an enemy, they expect these different units to work effectively together for mission success.

Second, because using the term “group” belies the individual nature of the followers. By using “group,” we fail those seeking to learn how to engage in effective leadership – which often requires seeing each individual’s developmental level, skills, capabilities, goals, and external environmental influences, in addition to the overall capabilities of the group.

So, as we move along, I would like you to consider leadership as a process in which one unit adapts to influence other units. And in doing so, they will hopefully cause the followers to adopt actions towards a mutually shared vision, objective, or goal.

The long and complicated version of this conceptual framework might be stated as follows:

Leadership is the decision to conduct or orchestrate a process in which one unit engages power in relations with other units to influence them to act in achieving, and maximizing their efforts towards, a mutually shared vision, objective, or goal by applying adaptability and different leadership tools, styles, and skills to the situation, developmental level, path, and environment of the followers.

I know, I know, it is a bit confusing and wordy, so let’s break this down for a minute.

The Leadership Process

First, let’s discuss process. Why a process? Because process provides context. It recognizes that, even if we are dealing with a very short-term goal, it is not a singular moment of interaction but takes place over time. It also allows us to determine the nature of the different dyadic relations between the leader and each follower and the leader and the group as a whole. This means leadership is not based only on the leader’s psychological, historical, or other traits.

Next, let’s examine the two major units involved in the process.

The first unit – “the leader” – should not necessarily be thought of as an individual. Rather, we may find that the leader is a group who is seen as a single unit. This can be “the government.” It might be a specific state. It might be the board of directors. It could be a particular person like a manager or parent. It might be two people – like the coaches of a team or a pair of parents. But this unit wants others to follow them, or join them, to get something done.

Whether this unit needs followers is not a question here. For whatever reason, the leader unit has decided that it wants to enlist the aid of others. This requires them to engage with these other units in some way. They cannot sit in a room and hope that others will simply join the cause.

Next, I have suggested that we not look at the followers as a cohesive singular unit – a group – but rather as individual units that may form or continue to work together as a team or group, given the right circumstances and motivation. This is important because each follower is at a different developmental level, the situation may seem different for each of them, the path they will need to undertake may be different, and the environmental influences will impact them differently.

The leader must use influence to help them work as a cohesive unit. Now, my students will tell you that influence is a problematic word. Does it mean persuade? Or Manipulate? Or Coerce? Is influence its own level of control? Should we perhaps use the term govern (from the Latin gubenare – to steer {events}) when contemplating influence? Ultimately influence, in all its many forms, is about affect. To influence means that one unit has the ability to impact another unit’s character, development, understanding, choices, or behavior.

And to do that means that the “leader” is engaging power. Here my students will tell you that power is not a dirty word. It doesn’t necessarily mean coercive measures. Power has many manifestations – in rules, norms, numbers, wealth, and the use of force, to name a few. Leaders use the resources available to them, limited by their doctrinal beliefs, to engage potential followers and get them to participate in the process.

Many people make the mistake of believing that once the follower has gone through onboarding for a specific mission, the leadership process ends. I cannot tell you how many times I’ve heard a manager or position leader say something like “but she said she was on board with the goal and would help get it done” or “He said he understood his job and what I wanted from him.”

This perspective is like suggesting followers are fire and forget missiles. It does not take into consideration the process approach. It’s basically saying, OK I hired you and now you have to set all your own goals, determine your own methods, and learn all the skills on your own.

While there is a type of leadership engagement – known in the military as mission command or mission control – that gives followers the freedom to delineate how they will achieve the leader’s desired outcome, that type of leadership requires a great deal of trust and the willingness to accept risk on the part of the leader.  To engage that type of leadership requires that the followers have demonstrated the necessary skills, the willingness to take action in support of the objectives, and the personal responsibility for their work. And it is often based on the dyadic relationship between the individuals involved, not the group as a whole. And it falls within a greater framework of established command and control.

So, leadership doesn’t end once a unit joins the group or the group forms. It is only just beginning.

Building Trust

If we consider Lencioni’s Pyramid for a moment, it seems like the leadership process requires building trust between the followers and with each follower. That creates the basis for an environment where conflict and disagreement can take place safely and where people feel safe sharing ideas. This allows for commitment where team objectives are acknowledged, upheld, and motivate the followers to engage. Which permits followers and leaders to embrace and accept accountability while eliminating counterproductive practices. (2002, pp. 185-190)

So, effective leadership means that once a group forms, it is incumbent on the leader to adapt as they guide the followers through the process so they can successfully attain the goal, objective, or vision. It requires the leader to help the followers develop the necessary skills, interpersonal interactions, commitment to the group, and confidence in their abilities so followers can focus on the group’s mission, not on their own success.

While the leadership process may be short, with little follower development, situational changes, or significant environmental influences, this does not mean that the leader gets off scot-free on their obligation to effectively engage the followers. On the contrary, while the leader may quickly align the group members and get them working together for a short-term goal, they may need to be more engaged with the followers than in a longer-term process.

If the group is supposed to work towards a greater objective or a significant vision, this process may be wrought with external influences and internal group dynamics that will impact success. Motivations that were high at the beginning of a process may wear thin over time. Followers in a group may start to rub each other the wrong way. External influences may detract from a follower’s ability to focus on tasks they are expected to accomplish. The original path delineated may be riddled with significant obstacles making progress difficult, which may negatively impact success and the motivation of the followers to continue to act.

By understanding and working on leadership as a process, leaders can provide context throughout the relationship with the followers – as a whole and individually.

Which requires a great deal of adaptability on the part of the leader.

That means learning what has changed regarding the follower’s developmental level and the skills needed to accomplish a task. It also means acknowledging the situation followers face in the group, at home, and in the environment where they are working. Finally, it also means taking responsibility when the set path meets obstructions that the followers cannot overcome alone.

So, leaders need to adapt how they engage with each follower and the group to work towards a mutual goal, objective, or vision. They cannot rely on one leadership style for everyone or over time. Nor can they simply rest on the leadership skills they already know, hoping that they will suffice.

So, leaders have to be open to learning how their leadership impacts their followers’ ability to engage the set path, how they are directly impacting work, and the environment in which that work occurs.

Most importantly, leadership is a choice. As noted at the outset, leadership is the decision to direct and participate in this process. While someone may hold a position, that does not necessarily mean they are engaging in leadership – even if they are the group “leader.” It may mean they are the manager or that responsibility has been thrust upon them against their will.

Leadership is the choice to get people to follow and work together effectively. And whether based on position or if a person emerges as a leader, the leadership process requires constant engagement, work, learning, and adaptability. This isn’t an invitation to micro-manage. On the contrary, an effective leadership process will create a relationship that is based on trust, mutual respect, empathy, understanding, and commitment. And will hopefully lead to followers accepting and effectively engaging mission control.

But only if the leader accepts the role and responsibility that comes with guiding the process.

The Short Version

So, what is leadership, the short version?

Leadership is the process of getting others to follow and working to make sure they will continue to follow over time.

But that’s just my version, if you know what I mean.

Good luck.


Northouse, Peter. Leadership: Theory and Practice. (6th ed) Thousand Oaks; Sage, 2013 .

Kotter, John P. A force for Change: How leadership differs from Management. New York: Free Press, 1990.

Stogdill, Ralph M. Handbook of leadership: A survey of theory and research. New York: Free Press, 1974.

Lencioni, Patrick M. The Five Dysfunctions of a Team: A Leadership Fable. San Francisco: John Wiley & Sons, 2002.


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