What is Leadership?

by Steven M. Smith · 66 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.

{ 47 comments… read them below or add one }

Dr. Bubba January 5, 2010 at 8:44 pm

Reading each of these, one word comes to mind that covers each part. “Influence.” Of course that is influence in a positive sense.


Steven M. Smith January 6, 2010 at 9:10 am

Dr. Bubba, Thank you for the feedback. I agree. Influence is a compelling force for starting the leadership chain reactions that produce the desired results. It may in fact be “the” compelling force in leadership.


Jack Greenfield January 12, 2010 at 10:45 am

Your post is appealing because it exposes many ideas worth thinking about in a few words. Have you considered haiku?


Steven M. Smith January 12, 2010 at 10:51 am

Hi Jack, Thank you for the compliment. It made my morning brighter.


Dr. McCann January 1, 2013 at 2:54 pm

I understand what your trying to asess here, but this sadly sounds more on the side of management as apposed to leadership. With all due respecct, I completely disagree with everything ur saying that defines leadership. Leadership is a process in which one person influences others to achieve a common goal. It has nothing to do with making people feel empowered. that is management. There is a big difference between the two.


Steven M. Smith January 1, 2013 at 5:58 pm

Thank you for your feedback.


Lorenzo Joseph January 7, 2013 at 5:24 pm

Wow, helped my dad make a research about a project topic; leadership excellence. Your work really helped me. Was so much inspired, wish I could get the opportunity to hear you speak on this same topic.
Lorenzo Joseph-Nigeria


Steven M. Smith January 8, 2013 at 3:41 pm

Thank you for the the kind feedback, Lorenzo. I hope we have the opportunity to meet face-to-face someday.


obakeng January 21, 2013 at 1:02 am

Indeed its a great feedback. thank you.


Steven M. Smith January 27, 2013 at 7:54 am

Thank you for the feedback, Obakeng.


Marc Smith January 26, 2013 at 5:59 pm

Nice article. I agree with Dr. McCann though. Our president is an example of a poor leader. He cannot “influence people to achieve a common goal.”


Steven M. Smith January 27, 2013 at 7:54 am

Thank you for the feedback, Marc.


Md. Imtiaz Uddin Farazi January 30, 2013 at 6:11 pm

Leadership is act, not position
Leadership manage people, not power


Steven M. Smith February 3, 2013 at 9:58 pm

Thank you for your feedback, Imtiaz.


Steve February 14, 2013 at 2:07 am

I loved the article; although, I must ask this question after reading a few of the posts…shouldn’t managers possess leadership qualities?


Steven M. Smith February 14, 2013 at 7:36 pm

Hi Steve, Apparently some people believe if you have the role of manager, you can’t be a leader. They are entitled to their opinion. But I have had the good fortune to have worked for several managers who were great leaders so I know that some people can be both a manager and a leader.

I appreciate you for the feedback about the article.


Max Lakritz February 17, 2013 at 1:30 pm

Well positioned Steve. “A good leader inspires us to have confidence in what they can do. A great leader inspires us to have confidence in what we can do.” Simon Sinek


Steven M. Smith February 18, 2013 at 7:20 am

Thank you, Max. I appreciate you for the feedback and the sharing of a great quote. I hope you are well.


Taj ullah khan March 1, 2013 at 1:25 pm

Sir you are very thank you because i need and resarch tha topic of leadership ,i con,t understand tha leadarship ,
but i read tha your explain tha topic of leadership ,
sir u cannot belive that i can understand on completely and satisfy .sir you can explain is very simple method and method is so easy and interasting ,
very very thank,s


Steven M. Smith March 10, 2013 at 3:57 pm

Thank you for the kind feedback, Taj!


Goaba March 11, 2013 at 1:10 am

I am an MBA student and I wish I could have come across this great stuff sometime last year when I was struggling with my assignments. I am going to refer others here. Thanks Steve.


Steven M. Smith March 11, 2013 at 7:58 am

Thank you for the kind feedback, Goaba. I wish you well in your studies.


Alexia March 18, 2013 at 8:17 am


I concur, everyone is entitled to their opinion, but as an MBA graduate I had the privilege to study the topic in good enough depth, and must add to your view that effective managers should exemplify some qualities of a good leader. Managing and Leading must happen simultaneously – one usually complements the other. Some of our very successful leaders also managed very effectively.


Steven M. Smith March 18, 2013 at 1:13 pm

Thank you for the confirmation, Alexia!


David Gonzalez April 2, 2013 at 8:53 pm

Very helpful information. Thank you for sharing your thoughts. Blessings.


Steven M. Smith April 4, 2013 at 6:14 am

Thank you for the feedback, David.


Danny April 6, 2013 at 9:38 am

I am working on a project with some friends about this topic, i was really confused on this topic, and your article help me a lot, i really love it, i will said to my friends to take a look to your article, you have helpful information, thanks you Steven blessings…


Steven M. Smith April 7, 2013 at 1:48 pm

Blessings to you, Danny. Thank you for the feedback.


YP Lam April 7, 2013 at 12:32 am

My take on leadership:

Leadership is about leading people (obviously). It’s also about getting people to work towards accomplishing a common goal. This requires knowledge (if not expertise) or mastery in a particular area/field and the ability to connect with and influence people. These are the core competencies of leadership that spin off the need to be visionary, innovative/creative, decisive and results driven. 

Sadly, because we are so results driven we often forget or assume that all leaders must be of good character but this is not the case and is the principal reason why we have so many toxic leaders in our midst. 

There is a need for both substance (competencies) as well as form (character) and hence what I call the leadership quotient. Character must be values-based and for this I strongly promote the practise of Courage, Humility and Integrity or what I refer to as the Chi (Chinese for energy, lifeforce, essence) of leadership.

YP Lam, Singapore


Steven M. Smith April 7, 2013 at 1:51 pm

I agree with you, YP. Thank you for the feedback. Wishing you much Chi.


Russ Mann August 9, 2014 at 12:49 pm


Great article, a great leader is the manager that learned compassion, creates change, and has the courage to do the right thing.


Steven M. Smith August 28, 2014 at 3:48 pm

Thank you for the feedback, Russ.


Ahmed Coment November 29, 2014 at 2:45 am

Thanks Mr steven,you have talk good topic because of many of peope’s confusse what leadership?why our counrty needed to leaderahip and who is a leader?example when you asked someone what is a leader?he/she answer, leader is person who lead or command some group or communities,that is good but still we need to clear deeply.In my oponion i can say every mature person is leader becouse sometimes he/she leads his/her self simply,am i wrong?


Steven M. Smith December 2, 2014 at 3:42 pm

Ahmed, I believe each person has many parts. When a part of person leads his or her other parts maturely, leadership has happened. So, no, you are NOT wrong.


sheikh Aasifa December 13, 2014 at 11:53 pm

tomorrow will be our debate competition
and my topic is leadership should be strict
and by your definition on leadership it gives me help for my competition….
thank you… :-)


Steven M. Smith December 14, 2014 at 3:09 pm

Hi Sheikh, My pleasure. Wishing you the kind of debate where argument creates learning.


Irene Mburuma February 15, 2015 at 12:21 am

Thanks ‘coz I increase my knowledge in leadership


Steven M. Smith May 5, 2015 at 6:08 pm

My pleasure, Irene.


Dhirendra Prasad October 4, 2015 at 4:13 pm

thanks for the great idea written about leadership
sir i need your help on some issues as follows
1. why some leaders do not change
2. what are some bad qualities of a leader
3. is position and power leadership
4. some extreme leadership styles
5. leadership development
6. why some leaders do not want to leave their position (school leaders)
why this leaders behave in uncouthly (impolitely) manner when they are in leadership position
7. how some leaders can improve their leadership knowledge and skill


Steven M. Smith October 4, 2015 at 5:15 pm

Hi Dhirendra, Thank you for the kind feedback. I cannot answer all of your questions and do them justice. But I will share my thoughts on a bad quality of leadership. Poor leaders communicate incongruently. That means they blame, placate, act superreasonable, and send mixed messages. When afraid, they run and hide.

Effective leaders are congruent — they balance their desires, others’ desires and the context. When they speak, their words and body are in harmony enabling them to send a single message. They listen carefully and respectfully. When a congruent leader is so afraid they want to run away and hide, they center themselves, enter the system, and turn it slowly and steadily.


Dhirendra Prasad October 4, 2015 at 6:00 pm

thank you


Adil Bhatti February 7, 2016 at 7:59 am

Thanks Mr. Steven, I am MBA Student from university of Lahore, Pakistan. I learn basics about Leader-ship. Thanks Sir.


sophia haji February 17, 2016 at 7:37 am

i appreciate your work


sophia haji February 21, 2016 at 9:10 pm

thanks for your help


Emily Vesper September 7, 2016 at 9:00 pm

Wow, what a well-written, insightful piece!


Ziyanda September 23, 2016 at 2:05 pm

Mr Smith I am happy i came across your arcticle, it really helped me understand the meaning of what a leader is and gave me the kind of information i needed for my research, thank you so much Sir…may God give you more inspiration to do your work to the fullest because a lot of us need people like you


Amos Tolelime Larry October 19, 2016 at 9:03 am

Thank you Steven, this is so great and helpful..


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