Leadership is Hard to Define

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Whether discussing local politics, volunteer experiences or the recent behavior of the management team at work, leadership (or the lack if it) always becomes part of the conversational thread. It seems that everyone has an opinion about leadership: one message that comes through clearly— and sometimes loudly— is that not everyone is cut out to be (or wants to be) a leader. At the same time, most of us crave the sense of rightness, belonging and purpose that great leaders inspire.

Collective experience also confirms that not all leaders are created equal. In analyzing the six levels of purpose-driven leadership (Sociopath, Opportunist, Chameleon, Achiever, Builder, Transcendent), author Mitch Maidique writes: “There is not much to celebrate about the first three levels, although certainly levels two and three abound in organizations. There’s much more to admire in levels four, five and six.”

According to Maidique, the most important distinction between these six levels of leadership is how leaders respond when asked “Whom do you serve?” If answered honestly, this question reveals a wide range of underlying motivations for pursuing leadership, which Maidique relates to the six levels of leadership as follows:[1]

Of course, purpose-driven leadership is only one model of leadership and many would argue that the lower levels of leadership described above don’t represent true leaders.

Depending on your definition of leadership, you may conclude that simply holding a position of power (or striving to do so) does not make someone a leader. In fact, you might believe that it is the underlying motivation and purpose of an individual that ultimately determines whether a person is (or is not) a leader.

The following passage from an internal IBM document[2] most closely reflects the kind of leadership I aspire to and seek in those I follow. Perhaps it will also resonate for you.

“Leadership is an invisible strand as mysterious as it is powerful. It pulls and it bonds. It is a catalyst that creates unity out of disorder. Yet, it defies definition. No combination of talents can guarantee it. No process of training can create it where the spark does not exist.

The qualities of leadership are universal. They are found in the poor and the rich, the humble and the proud, the common man, and the brilliant thinker; they are qualities that suggest paradox rather than pattern. But wherever they are found, leadership makes things happen.

The most precious and intangible quality of leadership is trust: the confidence that the one who leads will act in the best interest of those who follow, the assurance that he will serve the group without sacrificing the rights of the individual.

Leadership’s imperative is a ‘sense of rightness,’ knowing when to advance and when to pause, when to criticize and when to praise, how to encourage others to excel. From the leader’s reserves of energy and optimism, his followers draw strength. In his determination and self-confidence, they find inspiration.

In the highest sense, leadership is integrity. This command by conscience asserts itself more by commitment and example than by directive. Integrity recognizes external obligation, but it heeds the quiet voice within, rather than the clamor without.”


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[1] Modesto A. Maidique. Are You a Level-Six Leader? http://hbswk.hbs.edu/item/6752.html

[2] IBM: Carole Kismaric and Charles Mikoloycak (1974), On Leadership.  Cited in The Trust Factor by Robert T. Whipple

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