What is Leadership?

by Steven M. Smith · 54 comments

How do I define leadership?

Leadership is the ability to adapt the setting so everyone feels empowered to contribute creatively to solving the problems.

Leadership is an ability, meaning a leader has a capacity to do something through talent and skill. Talent is natural ability and skill is proficiency gained through training and experience. Talent certainly  helps, but it isn’t required. I know many people whose natural leadership ability was close to zero but through training, experience, and most of all, persistence, became great leaders.

Leadership is adaptive, meaning that the leader makes adjustments. A leader who fails to adjust to the territory will lose their way. Only fools willingly follow someone who is lost.

Leadership acts on a setting, meaning a leader adjusts the state of the surroundings and people. A leader carefully observes those states and discerns significance looking for how to adapt the setting most effectively.

Leadership empowers, meaning a leader inspires confidence and self-esteem. And that inspiration comes in many flavors. Some leaders inspire by bold talk; others by soft talk; and others by their example. There are many ways to empower rather than a single way.

Leadership acts on people’s feelings, meaning a leader finds ways to link to people’s instinct or intuition. Leaders help everyone feel empowered, which in many organizations with bad histories is a leap of faith. If a leader can also provide concrete evidence that helps the empowerment, wonderful. But evidence usually comes after the leadership actions produce the desired results.

Leadership creates contribution, which means every member gives something. Sometimes that may be sharing an idea. And sometimes that may be holding an ideas in reserve and allowing someone else to arrive at the same idea and share it.

Leadership is about solving the problems, which means closing the gap between things as desired and things as perceived. Everyone works on the solution to intermediary problems while keeping in mind the ultimate problem — closing a gap for the client or customer.

Leadership fosters creativity, meaning imaginative use of limited resources. A leader that enables people to use their imagination is a step closer to solving problems faster, better and cheaper.

Leadership is often attributed to a single individual. It’s easier to communicate success stories that way. People like simple stories that contain cause and effect even when they are wrong.

The more complex story reinforces that everyone on a team can be a leader. The most successful teams create chain reactions of leadership. Adaptation triggers long chains of further adaptations that ultimately solve seemingly impossible problems.


I owe a deep debt of gratitude to Jerry (Gerald M.) Weinberg for the ideas behind this post. He epitomizes this definition of leadership. His books, workshops, and teaching have deeply influenced me. My definition for leadership is an adaptation of the one he uses in his book On Becoming a Technical Leader, which I highly recommend reading. You will find Jerry’s writing a source of empowerment.