The Definition of Leadership

What Is Leadership? And Can You Learn to Be a Good Leader?

Illustration showing the definition of a leader

Image by Theresa Chiechi © The Balance 2019 

What is leadership? A simple definition is that leadership is the art of motivating a group of people to act toward achieving a common goal. In a business setting, this can mean directing workers and colleagues with a strategy to meet the company's needs.

This leadership definition captures the essentials of being able and prepared to inspire others. Effective leadership is based upon ideas (whether original or borrowed), but won't happen unless those ideas can be communicated to others in a way that engages them enough to act as the leader wants them to act.

Put even more simply, the leader is the inspiration for and director of the action. They are the person in the group that possesses the combination of personality and leadership skills to make others want to follow their direction.

Business Leadership and the Bottom Line

In business, leadership is linked to performance, and any leadership definition has to take that into account. While it's not solely about profit, those who are viewed as effective leaders are the ones who increase their company's bottom lines. If an individual in a leadership role does not meet profit expectations set by boards, higher management, or shareholders, they may be terminated.

The terms "leadership" and "management" tend to be used interchangeably. Management refers to a company's management structure as its leadership, or to individuals who are actually managers as the "leaders" of various management teams.

Leadership, however, requires traits that extend beyond management duties. To be effective, a leader certainly has to manage the resources at their disposal. But leadership also involves communicating, inspiring and supervising—just to name three more of the primary skills a leader has to have to be successful.

Leaders: Born or Made?

While there are people who seem to be naturally endowed with more leadership abilities than others, anyone can learn to become a leader by improving particular skills. History is full of people who, while having no previous leadership experience, have stepped to the fore in crisis situations and persuaded others to follow their suggested course of action. They possessed traits and qualities that helped them to step into roles of leadership.

Writing in Forbes magazine, Erika Andersen, author of "Leading So People Will Follow," says that, like most things, leadership capability falls along a bell curve. So the fact is that most folks who start out with a modicum of innate leadership capability can actually become very good, even great leaders.

The Evolution of a Leader

Steve Jobs is a classic example of someone who learned to lead despite not being born a natural leader. After starting Apple Computer with Steve Wozniak in 1976, he was fired by the board of directors in 1985 when the company was facing intense competition and internal disagreement about the future direction of the business. Later, after founding Pixar Animation Studios and NeXT Computer, he was eventually rehired by Apple in 1997 as CEO and went on to develop the revolutionary iPod, iPhone, and many other products.

By all accounts, Steve Jobs was a mercurial genius who, early in his career, routinely yelled at employees, co-workers, partners, and vendors. According to some ex-employees of Apple and NeXT, he was intolerant of anything he viewed as a failure, and his foul-mouthed tirades were the stuff of legend. He apparently believed in brutal honesty and considered other people's feelings irrelevant. He did not conduct formal reviews with employees and was sparing with praise for a job well done.

However, according to biographies, such as "Steve Jobs" by Walter Isaacson, as Jobs matured his management style began to shift. He started to moderate some of his more negative traits and showed more empathy toward others, realizing that people had limits. Upon his return to Apple, he was forced to cut staff and was quoted as expressing concern for families of employees who were laid off. 

Jobs died on October 5, 2011, at the age of 56. Even after his death, his reputation and his company lives on. An October 2018 article in Forbes magazine stated, "Today, precisely seven years after [Jobs'] passing, his name is still synonymous with visionary, genius, innovator, and icon." He could not have accomplished much of what he did—and Apple probably woudn't be around today—had Jobs not developed into a leader.