What is Leadership?

By | March 26, 2018

[March 26, 2018] A few months ago, I was listening to a speech given by a university president. He identified some of the problems he believed were necessary to solve and the only way to do that was through better leadership. After the speech, which received a standing ovation (it was very good), I asked him at dinner what he meant by “leadership.” Surprisingly, he could not answer the basic question, What is leadership?

In his words to a large number of faculty and staff, he said the issues facing his university was a decline in the teaching and mentoring of students, occasional disruption of classes by protests, and a decline in academic rigor. His solution? More leadership. My first thought was whether he actually understood what leadership meant. Clearly, he knew enough to speak about it and like many of us who love art; often we cannot describe it in clear and concise words.

In the footnotes below the end of this blog post, I listed 13 quotes about leadership used here at theLeaderMaker.com. I like them and they are all from very famous leaders. But there is a flaw in each. They do not tell us what leadership is. The one, in my opinion, that comes closest to truly getting at the heart of what leadership is about, is the last one by Dwight Eisenhower:

“Leadership is the art of getting someone else to do something you want done because he wants to do it.” – Dwight D. Eisenhower

Leadership always contains two elements; people and a common task. Reading these quotes comes close to giving a greater understanding of leadership but often generates more questions than it answers. Leadership becomes the easy answer; have a problem, just exercise more leadership. This is what the university president was doing. He had a problem and so the solution for him and his audience was more leadership.

I like my definition of leadership because it’s simple and has both elements. “Leadership is about getting people to do things they would not ordinarily do because they want to do it.” …. Yes, leadership is complex, difficult, and requires focus on people but it is also about the end result and what needs to be accomplished.

1. “Leadership is the capacity to translate vision into reality.” – Warren Bennis
2. “Leadership is unlocking people’s potential to become better.” – Bill Bradley
3. “Leadership is a choice, not a position.” – Stephen Covey
4. “Leadership – leadership is about taking responsibility, not making excuses.” – Mitt Romney
5. “Leadership is a way of thinking, a way of acting and, most importantly, a way of communicating.” – Simon Sinek
6. “A genuine leader is not a searcher for consensus but a molder of consensus.” – Martin Luther King, Jr.
7. “A leader is a dealer in hope.” – Napoleon Bonaparte
8. “I suppose leadership at one time meant muscles, but today it means getting along with people.” – Mahatma Gandhi
9. “The task of the leader is to get his people from where they are to where they have not been.” – Henry Kissinger
10. “Good leadership consists of showing average people how to do the work of superior people.” – John D. Rockefeller
11. “Leadership to me means duty, honor, country. It means character, and it means listening from time to time.” – George W. Bush
12. “True leadership lies in guiding others to success. In ensuring that everyone is performing at their best, doing the work they are pledged to do and doing it well.” – Bill Owens
13. “Leadership is the art of getting someone else to do something you want done because he wants to do it.” – Dwight D. Eisenhower

Author: Douglas R. Satterfield

Hello. I'm Doug and I provide at least one article everyday on some leadership topic. I welcome comments and also guests who would like to write an article. Thanks for reading my blog.

27 thoughts on “What is Leadership?

  1. Palma Donn

    Hello.This article was really motivating, particularly because I was looking for thoughts on this matter last Wednesday.

  2. Watson B.

    I see that most of these articles are pretty darn good.

  3. Jerry Jones

    Every day we exercise our influence over others. Leadership is about influence not about a title or power.

  4. Joe Omerrod

    Gen Satterfield, to put such a big topic into one blog post is challenge even I would not want. Perhaps you could expand on this more at a later date. Part 2 soon?

    1. Douglas R. Satterfield Post author

      Joe: This is a subject I wanted to write an article on for a long time. Yes, the very question I asked myself; break it into multiple posts or just hit the highlights. I chose the latter. More on “what is leadership” later.

  5. Tracey Brockman

    Hello everyone. I recently found theleadermaker.com and appreciate the quality of the articles and comments. What is Leadership? was a timely post. I was just asked to help out a girls softball team where I will use this. Being in the U.S. Army, I still have some time to give back to my community.

  6. Greg Heyman

    Classic question and one that is rarely answered directly. Usually, we point to what a leader is not and then describe some basic attributes. This is not wrong but can be confusing for those wishing to learn about leadership.

  7. Jung-hoon Kim

    The question is important for us all. Respect is necessary for a good leader who seeks to take people down the best path.

  8. Jonathan B.

    My favorite leader quote: “Anyone can hold the helm when the sea is calm.” – Publilius Syrus

  9. Ronny Fisher

    This is why I come to this site for leadership. Good article and now some great folks making comments that are helpful.

  10. Andrew Dooley

    “Only the Good Die Young” is a song from Billy Joel’s 1977 pop rock album, The Stranger. It’s my favorite song from that time period. What it says is that those who stand out and do things others would not do, are more likely to die (ie., be punished). Leadership is like this. You are at risk when you are a leader. Some people avoid leadership like some terrible disease but they are the ones who are wilting away. Ultimately, leadership is about getting things done and for the human race, that is a good thing.

  11. Shawn C Stolarz

    My favorite leadership quote:
    “The best leader is the one who has sense enough to pick good men to do what he wants done, and the self-restraint to keep from meddling with them while they do it.” -Theodore Roosevelt

  12. Max Foster

    Dwight D. Eisenhower’s personal path to leadership was not always perfect but he truly understood it from his exprieinces leading others. I read his bio and his words, fortunately recorded, are an inspiration to others. If you want to be a leader, read Eisenhower.

  13. Bryan Lee

    Actually, I think that the combination of all these 13 quotes helps me understand leadership better. Yes, it is complex and difficult but otherwise anybody could do it well.

  14. Joey Holmes

    I like the number 1 quote of Warren Bennis. I don’t know who he is but I think he is the most right. Cheers.

  15. Tony B. Custer

    Leadership once meant strength over others. Today it means influence over others. These are two very different aspects of good leadership. The latter only works well in societies with complex laws that govern proper behavior.

  16. Janna Faulkner

    A decent article I once read (link below) falls into the same problem that other confusing definitions do, they leave out either the people or the common task. More leadership articles speak to the “characteristics” of good leadership rather than to the end product. All are correct but we should never lose sight of both. Good day!
    Here is the article’s link: https://siyli.org/resources/what-is-leadership-and-what-makes-a-good-leader

  17. Danny Burkholder

    As always, General Satterfield, spot-on!

    1. Yusaf from Texas

      Yes, I agree. Well done. Key attributes of leadership discussed.

  18. Dennis Mathes

    I’ve always said that good leadership means that subordinates will do their job willingly when given the opportunity. We are saying the same thing. Few leaders, unfortunately, don’t understand that the key to good leadership in a modern society is to get the people to WANT TO DO IT rather than being forced to.

  19. Martin Shiell

    There will always be poor leaders for a variety of reasons. Some are lazy (most common), others lack the intellectual ability, and others just don’t want the responsibility. The problem for the rest of us is that these poor leaders make our lives more difficult than it should be. Solutions are hard to come by when you have a poor leader who is creating problems.

  20. Army Captain

    I too have known some poor leaders who use the “just use good leadership” as their solution to every problem. It was clear they knew nothing about it but had heard this before, so they adopted it as a cure-all.

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