Fifteen Well Said Leadership Definitions

Remember, If you can’t define it, you cannot know it. If you don’t know it, you can’t do it. You might say, “The best way to define leadership is by understanding many leadership definitions. And then, coming up your own.”

Coming up with a leadership definition is surprisingly difficult. There is even a fair amount of confusion in the business schools where we see many professors act as though a leadership and a management are the same thing.

Some people define leadership as the ability to influence others to achieve a common goal. Others define it as the ability to motivate and inspire others to do their best. Still others define it as the ability to create a vision for the future and to inspire others to follow that vision.

Despite the lack of a single definition, there are some common themes that emerge when people talk about leadership. These themes include the ability to motivate and inspire others, the ability to build relationships, the ability to make decisions, and the ability to take risks.

In this article, we will explore fifteen well-said leadership definitions from a variety of sources. We will also discuss the common themes that emerge from these definitions and how they can help us to understand what it means to be a leader.

Whether you are a new leader or a seasoned veteran, I encourage you to read through these fifteen definitions and reflect on what they mean to you. I believe that you will find them to be both thought-provoking and inspiring.

Murray Johannsen

Unleash Your Leadership Ability

Image - Difference between management and leadership
Unlock the leadership theories that ignite influence and catalyze transformation. 

Map Out Your Leadership Journey

Discover The Theory and Skills You Need to Lead

Take Action

Famous photo of newspaper that called the election wrong. However, it must be said that about the only one who thought he could win was Truman himself.
This famous photo shows a newspaper that called the 1948 election of a U.S. President wrong. However, it must be said that the only one who thought another term in the White House was possible was Truman himself.

“My definition of a leader . . . is a man who can persuade people to do what they don’t want to do, or do what they’re too lazy to do, and like it.” Harry S. Truman, 1884-1972, Thirty-third President of the United States, Miller, More Plan Speaking

“You cannot manage men into battle. You manage things; you lead people.” Grace Hopper, Admiral, U. S. Navy (retired), Nova ( PBS TV), 1986

“The superior leader gets things done with very little motion. He imparts instruction not through many words but a few deeds. He keeps informed about everything but interferes hardly at all. He is a catalyst, and though things would not get done well if he weren’t there when they succeed he takes no credit. And because he takes no credit, credit never leaves him.Lao Tse, Tao Te Ching

“Leadership occurs when one person induces others to work toward some predetermined objectives.” Massie

“Leadership is the ability of a superior to influence the behavior of a subordinate or group and persuade them to follow a particular course of action.” Chester Bernard

Definitions of Leadership (6 to 10)

Mohandas K. Gandhi, meditative pose, 1924. One of the most phenomenal leaders of the 20th century he was able to influence millions though he held no position in government. Called by many Mahatma which means Great Soul.
Mohandas K. Gandhi, meditative pose, 1924. One of the most phenomenal leaders of the 20th century he was able to influence millions though he held no position in government. Called by many Mahatma which means Great Soul.

“Leadership is the art of influencing and directing people in such a way that will win their obedience, confidence, respect and loyal cooperation in achieving common objectives.” U. S. Air Force

“The feminine leadership style emphasizes cooperation over competition; intuition as well as rational thinking in problem-solving, team structures where power and influence are shared within the group . . . interpersonal competence; and participative decision making.” Marilyn Loden, Founder and president, Loden Associates, Management Review, December 1987

“The first job of a leader is to define a vision for the organization… Leadership of the capacity to translate vision into reality.” Warren Bennis, President, University of Cincinnati, University of Maryland symposium, January 21, 1988

“The ultimate test of practical leadership is the realization of intended, real change that meets people’s enduring needs.” James MacGregor Burns

“Managers have subordinates — leaders have followers.” Murray Johannsen

Leadership Definitions 11 to 15

Mustafa Kemal Atatürk. Picture was taken when he was a general and before becoming the founder of the modern state of Turkey.
Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, when he was a general and before becoming first president and founder of the modern state of Turkey.

“If your actions inspire others to dream more, learn more, do more and become more, you are a leader.” John Quincy Adams quotes (American 6th US President (1825-29), eldest son of John Adams, 2nd US president. 1767-1848)

“I am looking for a lot of men who have an infinite capacity to not know what can’t be done.” Henry Ford

“Leadership is a two-way street, loyalty up and loyalty down. Respect for one’s superiors; care for one’s crew.” Grace Hopper, Admiral, U. S. Navy (retired), Speech, Washington, D. C., February 1987

“As for the best leaders, the people do not notice their existence. The next best, the people honor and praise. The next, the people fear; the next, the people hate.” Lao Tse, 604-531 B. C., Chinese philosopher and founder of Taoism, Tao Te Ching

“A manager takes people where they want to go. A great leader takes people where they don’t necessarily want to go but ought to.” Rosalyn Carter

A Final Word . . .

Future US President Theodore Roosevelt with the Rough Riders during the Spanish American war. The story was part of the mythology of hero and the great leader.
Future US President Theodore Roosevelt with the Rough Riders during the Spanish-American war. This story was a major factor in making the national stage as a folk hero.

“It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbled, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs and comes short again and again; who knows the great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who, at the best, knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who, at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those timid souls who know neither victory or defeat.” Theodore Roosevelt, American President

Bornstein, Adam & Jordan (2016). 22 Qualities That Make a Great Leader, Entrepreneur, Oct 28. One way to define a leader is by the qualities or characteristics that they exhibit. Here are some well-said characteristics defined by leaders.

Hemrich, Brittany (2016). 33 Ways To Define Leadership, Business News Daily, Business New Daily, April 5.  Here’s an article where leaders define leadership. After all, you can’t do what you don’t understand.

Master the Art of Influencewith Impact Coaching

This IMPACT COACHING program empowers executives and entrepreneurs to maximize one or more of their 9 spheres of influence.

Unleash your leadership prowess, shatter barriers, and embark on a transformative journey that will propel your success and leave a lasting legacy

Work Skills For the 21st Century