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David Ripley

Here is a definition I found amazingly on Wikipedia
"Leadership is ultimately about creating a way for people to contribute to making something extraordinary happen." –Alan Keith

Bruce Lynn

I've never been fond of the leadership definition that a 'Leader is someone others will follow' (aka 'leaders create followers', etc). I find it simplistic, self-referential and almost glib. There are too many instances where the definition just isn't very useful...'Okay, I have what? How do I become a better leader? Get even more followers?'

Michael Maccoby

I found these comments interesting,especially learning that others had the same definition. However, in my book, I go one to raise the difficult questions: Why is this person being followed? How is this person being followed? Where is the leader taking followers? The best leaders are working for the common good and not personal power. However, as I point out, the ability to engage followers depends on understanding those followers, something theories of leadership often ignore.

Kevin Rutkowski

I think the definition is a good one that opens the door to a lot of good questions. The word "leader" generally has good connotations in the US, but this definition removes the positive connotations for me and broadens my perspective.

As Walter points out in his comment, cult leaders are indeed leaders. People who run organized crime are leaders. Genocidal dictators are also leaders.

This definition also isn't biased towards any reason why people follow the leader. People may follow because they fear the leader, because they admire the leader, or any number of other reasons. Regardless, the person being followed is a leader.

In addition, the definition doesn't define how many people must follow the leader. So, a person who has children who follow him would still be considered a leader under this definition regardless of whether anyone else follows him.

I like this definition because it is clear and accurate and it opens up a lot of perspectives on leadership that may be ignored with a different definition.

Matt Moore

Three points:

1. I agree with Maccoby (& so it would seem, Drucker). If you cut thru all the waffle devoted to the topic of leadership then a leader is someone who has people following them. They have a vision, they may not. They may be good, they may be bad (your mileage from leadership may vary).

2. The industry of books, seminars & coaching that has grown up around leadership is driven by one simple fact: People would rather talk about leading than actually do it. And there is no substitute for doing it. I think "leading" (verb) is more helpful than "leadership" (noun) but is harder to sell.

3. The literature around leaders is far more voluminous than the literature around followers. And yet there are far more acts of following in the world than acts of leading. Does this imbalance not strike anyone as odd?

Nathan Stehle

This post got me to thinking as well.

The conclusion I arrived at is similar to most's a good starting point. There is an obsession with leadership, and so there is a great deal of useless writings on the concept of a leader. There is also some excellent literature as well.

"Try to make things as simple as possible, but not simpler." -Einstein

There is no way to capture what a leader can all encompass in a few words or a book.

The definition should not include a judgment, as leaders can be "good" or "bad", and that sometimes depends on one's perspective. I think this is what the definition was doing.

Sometimes a leader might not have any followers because the individual is leading with an idea, a collection of thoughts, an innovation, etc. So, they are in a sense "followed" but not in the classic sense.

For me, a leader inspires with something, perhaps a vision. A leader is someone I trust and look to for guidance.


If a leader is someone with followers then would that not also cover cult leaders? Isn't a good leader just a head of of good cult? Would the study of cults reveal useful insights?

Bob Sutton

I would like to thank everyone for your wonderful comments. Two themes especially struck me. The first the comment that, well, it is right (and like many things that are right, you find it in Drucker early on), but it isn't very useful. Interesting point. The second is Wally's comment that taking time to define in seminars proved to be something that wasn't very useful. Oddly, I think that is true of many important concepts. I know I am not being very academic here, but it is interesting to go back and look at the 1958 classic Organizations by the late Herbert Simon and James March. Simon won a Nobel prize and there is a lot of buzz around Stanford that March has a decent chance to win in the next few years -- he is very creative. They start this book on Organizations by -- as I recall -- declining to define the term, saying it is easier and more constructive to give some examples than to get into a hair splitting discussion about the difference between an organization and a non-organization. Interestingly, they did offer a definition when they released book with a forward some 30 years later, but I always like the original response in some ways.

One more thing, I like Chris's two words a lot!

Frederic Lucas-Conwell

Why is it that the concept of leadership has no echo at all in some European countries such as France? How can they do without it? Answer, about your question, I believe, is in what politics, academic, school teachers, organizations or society want leadership to be or not. Coming elections will give an insightful reflection about what leadership means for America. What leadership do we expect from those who occupy executive and managerial positions? Doesn’t it depend on the different roles the organizations need them to play and a general tendency we can observe that people require more and more comprehension of their individuality?

Wally Bock

I've used that definition in my training for years. I took it originally from Peter Drucker who framed it this way: "The only thing we can say for sure about leaders is that they have followers."

On a related note, I used to spend training time on defining leadership, but I stopped doing that a couple of years ago. I took that step because I found that the definition didn't matter much. So today I give people in class a list of definitions from various sources and suggest that they can pick whatever one they like. After that I share Drucker's (and other's) insight.

What happens next is important. We move into an exercise where we develop description of what great leaders DO from the experiences of the people in the room. Whatever list the group comes up with becomes our agenda for the rest of the program.

Erik Sherman

I think it's one step too simplistic. A celebrity or temporary media darling can have a following, but that doesn't mean the person can accomplish anything. Here's a change that I think helps: A leader is someone others follow to achieve something. That separates a real leader from a fad.


Peter Senge has said that frequently the real leader of a corporation is a third-level manager with no important title who nonetheless facilitates effective communication within the organization. Yet, what happens when that kind of individual runs up against the de jure "leaders" of the front office who may possess what Robert Hare depicts as the sociopathic personality? People often follow them because they feel compelled. These damaged types very likely will not tolerate the influence of a de facto leader farther down the chain of command and move to either control or eliminate that person. Therefore, in fairness to Maccoby, I cannot judge whether his simple definition of a leader is actually simplistic or prophetic until I read and think about his book.


It is a great definition but not useful for someone trying to learn leadership skills. It isn't actionable for me. Is it even measurable?


I do a great deal of work in my organization to develop leaders but learned a great deal myself this summer by going back and reading Heifetz's Leadership Without Easy Answers. The distinction of a leader as an individual there "to help people face reality and to mobilize them to make change" was significant. Heifetz's pounds at the "differences in behavior between leaders who operate with the idea that leadership means influencing the organization to follow the leader's vision and those who operate with the idea that leadership means influencing the organization to face its problems and to live into its opportunities." The latter role seems to grow more important every day.


For me, a leader is someone who has a vision. This vision can be about their business or product or country or almost anything they find important. The vision is built with others through meaningful conversations, and communicated throughout the organisation. It guides decision making and gives people a context for day to day activities. Leaders without a vision will soon lose their followers.


This is at the heart of any debate of leadership debate. I think it is not simplistic, it is the fundamental building block. As a leader it is important 'To Be' first. You have to be the part first and that lays nicely into the statement that you make. A good leader would never need to tell what needs to be done. They inspire the best from the people.

Chris Yeh

I would add two words:

There is one irrefutable definition of a leader, and that is someone people CHOOSE TO follow.


Bob--I see this definition as useful in a triage environment: who needs help the most who is now in a leadership position? Those who have the greatest difficulty engaging any followers.

It's just as you and others who commented above (and Maccoby) say: this is an opening of the door. For those who fail to find the doorknob, though, it is a storm warning! One must, first, pass the very most-basic test before the deeper study and education can continue on their leadership skills.

Peter G. Klein

Bob, you can find the same definition in Ben Hermalin's 1998 paper: "A leader is someone with followers."

He goes on to distinguish, usefully, between leadership and formal authority.

Jeff from NH

Two books on leadership (though specifically not on that topic) that came to my mind are "Endurance: Shackleton's Incredible Voyage" by Alfred Lansing and "The Last Lecture" by Randy Pausch.

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