What is Leadership?

Last week I sat on a SDSU scholarship interview committee. We asked the students during the interview, “What is your definition of leadership?”  And then there was silence. The kind of silence that starts to feel awkward and you keep hoping the person will break the ice.

Over the past week I’ve been thinking about the question, and the answers that were provided after the break in the silence. So I thought I would write a blog about the definition of “leadership.”  Hmmm, where do I begin? You see, “leadership” is not a simple word or topic that can be explained in ten seconds. It’s about as easy to define as trying to lick your elbow. Seriously, give it a try.

There is no one single clear-cut definition of “leadership.” There are a plethora of books, journals and articles that attempt to define what “leadership” is and how it is done and nearly as many definitions. In Leadership for the Twenty-First Century, Rost documented the changing definition of the term “leadership” from the early 1900’s until the 1980’s and found at least 221 definitions of the term “leadership” in 587 books and journal articles, as well as 366 publications that did not include a formal definition of the term.  Wow! That’s a lot of definitions.

Without one clear definition, we interpret “leadership” in many ways. Scholars, in fact, have defined “leadership” in various ways, including:

  • an influence relationship among leaders and followers who intend real changes that reflect their mutual purposes (Rost, 1993);
  • a process involving followership rather than something an individual leader possesses (Hollander, 1993);
  • the behavior of an individual when he or she is directing the activities of a group toward a shared goal (Hemphill & Coons, 1957);
  • a process ordinary people use when bringing forth the best from themselves and others (Kouzes and Posner, 2007)

What is your personal definition of “leadership”?  I hope you take some time to think about the question, as you may encounter it in an interview one day. We hope that you use our office, Student Life & Leadership, as a resource when developing your personal definition of leadership. We offer many different opportunities for leadership development, from workshops to overnight retreats.

Dr. Robyn Adams

Assistant Director, Student Life & Leadership



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