Leadership is everywhere. We see it in our news, social media, work, and political and social systems. Leadership is so embedded in human nature that if we are left alone with other people for a while, we immediately create a structure with leaders and followers[1] [2].

And yet, if you ask ten people “what is leadership?”, you will most likely get ten different answers. People see leadership in so many different ways that you can find hundreds of definitions out there[3] [4]. These are not great news if you want a working guide on how to be a leader, improve your leadership, or make an informed decision on whether you should follow someone’s leadership.

With that in mind, let’s see how leadership is being defined, identify the key elements shared by most definitions, and reflect on why we are all (leaders and followers) much better off knowing what leadership is and what it is not.

What is leadership?

With hundreds of leadership definitions out there, there is really no point in coming up with yet another one. Perhaps a more meaningful and useful path would be to examine existing definitions and uncover the key elements they share. In doing so, we might be able to pinpoint exactly what leadership is, to develop a deep understanding of its elements (and of leadership itself), and to engage in actual acts of leadership.

In the table below you have ten representative definitions of leadership, from some of the most prominent contemporary scholars, practitioners, and writers. At first glance, these definitions may appear to be quite different from each other. However, a simple scratch on the surface reveals that most definitions available today have more in common than meets the eye.

In the “key elements” column of the table, we highlighted the core elements encompassed, directly or indirectly, by each definition. Authors present their definitions using more specific or more generic terms, and even emphasize some elements more than others. However, when you overlap all definitions, you start seeing a clear and shared pattern of key elements.

Before we examine this pattern, take a second to go through Table 1. Notice that, despite the disparities in language, most definitions share the same fundamental elements.

Table 1. Ten current and representative definitions of leadership.

Author (Year) Key elements
“Leadership is the process of influencing others to understand and agree about what needs to be done and how to do it, and the process of facilitating individual and collective efforts to accomplish shared objectives.”[5] Yukl (2013) Process, influence, others, shared goals
“Leadership is a process whereby an individual influences a group of individuals to achieve a common goal.”[6] Northouse (2019) Process, influence, others, shared goals
“Leadership is the influencing process between leaders and followers to achieve organizational objectives through change.”[7] Lussier and Achua (2016) Process, influence, others, goals (through change)
“We define it (leadership) broadly in terms of a) influencing individuals to contribute to group goals and b) coordinating the pursuit of those goals.”[8] Van Vugt, Hogan, and Kaiser (2008) Influence, others, shared goals, process
“Leadership is human (symbolic) communication that modifies the attitudes and behaviors of others in order to meet shared group goals and needs.”[9] Johnson and Hackman (2018) Process, influence, others, shared goals
Leadership is “a process of social influence that is planned and unplanned, formal and informal, and defined as much by the leader as the follower.”[10] Ruben and Gigliotti (2017) Process, influence, others
“Leadership is a multi-level (person, dyad, group, collective) leader-follower interaction process that occurs in a particular situation (context) where a leader (e.g., superior, supervisor) and followers (e.g., subordinates, direct reports) share a purpose (vision, mission) and jointly accomplish things (e.g., goals, objectives, tasks) willingly (e.g., without coercion).”[11] Yammarino (2013) Process, context, influence (indirectly), others, shared goals
“Leadership involves multiple individuals engaged in a process of interpersonal and mutual influence that is ultimately embedded within some collective.”[12] DeRue and Ashford (2010) Process, influence, others, context
“Leadership is a social and goal-oriented influence process, unfolding in a temporal and spatial milieu.”[13] Fischer, Dietz, and Antonakis (2017) Process, influence, others, goals, context
“Leadership is a formal or informal contextually rooted and goal-influencing process that occurs between a leader and a follower, groups of followers, or institutions.”[14] Antonakis and Day (2018) Process, influence, context, goals, others


Key elements of current definitions of leadership


Process is the first element emerging in all the definitions of leadership we reviewed. A process involves a series of interactions that occur over time and within a given context[15]. Leadership, thus, is an interactive relationship between leaders and those they lead, let’s call them followers. This means that, currently, most Authors see leadership not in terms of what a leader is or does, but rather in terms of the relationship between leaders and followers.

This relationship is not static, nor something that is established once and that remains stable throughout time. Rather, it is fluid, dynamic and tends to change over time[12] [16]. Like any other relationship, it is an ongoing process that emerges, evolves, spirals up and down, and does not always have a clear beginning and end. For instance, it takes time, and in many instances multiple interactions, for followers to attribute you a leadership role, for the follower or leader identity to sink in, and for the outcomes of your leadership efforts to surface.

You have two main types of leadership processes at your disposal: development and leveraging processes[13]. In development processes you create or improve resources by, for example, coaching, training, or sharing knowledge with followers. As a consequence, you promote their knowledge, skills, abilities, and other competencies at work. In leveraging processes you capitalize on existing resources by, for example, motivating your followers or setting specific and difficult, but attainable, goals with them. As a consequence, you raise the probability of working with followers at their full potential.

Since development and leveraging processes feed each other, you will most likely engage in both processes, as required over time. For instance, it can be awkward to motivate others if they do not have the required competence to do better. Let’s say that you see leadership mainly as a leveraging process and you focus almost exclusively on inspiring followers. In such a case, now and then, you may come up with an inspirational message that pumps up your followers momentarily. However, if nothing else is done, you may also fuel frustration, particularly when they come back to work and do not have the skills to meet the expected level of success.

Still, the outcome of any development or leveraging process often depends on the context where it occurred. This happens mainly because context largely defines the meaning and relevance followers attribute to the leadership process. Context can be many things[17]. It can be where you lead (for example, your cultural background or your company), who you lead (for example, your occupation or hierarchical position in the company), or even when you lead (for example, during an organizational or economic crisis, stagnation, or booming). Context can also be the type of task you are coordinating, the time you have to complete the task with your team, the environment where you lead (for example, the temperature or the physical distance between you and your followers), and how well your team is functioning.

Regardless of how you look at context, it is a dominant part of any leadership process (even appearing as a separated element in some definitions). Take the example of U.S. presidents[18]. Communicating with enthusiasm, emphasizing economic growth, and highlighting ideals (called promotion-focused communication) only raises presidential ratings and the probability of reelection during periods of high inflation or low economic growth. In the context of low inflation or high economic growth, the same promotion-focused communication did not change, at least until now, U.S. presidents ratings nor their probability of reelection. Context leads voters to interpret the same presidential message differently. In the same vein, your followers can attribute quite different meanings and intentions to the same interaction/process you have with them, depending on where, when, and in what conditions it occurred.

Leadership as a process of influence among leaders and followers.


The element of influence also appeared, directly or indirectly, in all definitions of leadership. Note that this influence is not unidirectional, from the leader to the follower. Rather, both leaders and followers influence each other during leadership. That is, the leader affects, and is affected by, the followers.

Often, your leadership influence ends up shaping the ideas, priorities, and even values and feelings of your followers[19]. However, your followers are not empty receptors, passively waiting for your influence. They can accept, modify, or even reject your influence; and their reactions to your influence ends up shaping you and your leadership. There are two main explanations for this. First, your followers interpret your influence through their own eyes. For example, their beliefs, needs, values, goals, and life history ultimately define how effective your influence is and the reaction you get. Second, we evolved to constantly and automatically evaluate how effective a leadership influence is in a given context or for a given task[20]. For example, your followers may decide to publicly criticize you or even follow a different path when they believe your influence is not in the best interest of everyone.

So what distinguishes leadership influence from follower influence? Leadership involves a differential influence on the leader-follower relationship and on how collaborative work is started, directed and coordinated. In other words, the impact of leaders on followers is greater than the impact of followers on leaders[13].

According to evolutionary perspectives, you can exercise your differential leadership influence in three main ways: prestige, charisma, and dominance[21] [22]. With prestige-based influence you rely on your competence, abilities, expertise, skills, and knowledge to influence others. People voluntarily accord you leadership because, for example, they want to learn from you or see you as the most qualified person to achieve what the group wants. You rely on charisma-based influence when you signal values, emotions, and symbols that resonate with your followers. People follow you because, for example, they identify with the values you signal, and feel inspired around you and around the ideas and possibilities you articulate.

Finally, you can also exert influence through dominance. Note that coercing and intimidating someone to accept your influence is not leadership, according to the definitions we reviewed. However, dominance strategies are usually considered leadership when followers accept them willingly. For instance, your followers may willingly accept, and even welcome, a dominance strategy when danger or an emergency situation arises and the group needs to quickly adapt to survive or to deal effectively with the situation[23] [24].

You see dominance-based influence frequently in surgical, military, and sports teams. José Mourinho (the football coach, soccer coach if you are from the U.S.), leads mainly through charisma- and prestige-based influence. However, when players violate important group norms or ethical standards, he quickly switches to dominance strategies, such as sanctions and public reprimands. Although it is not always the case, in most instances his players accept these strategies quite well. Aligned with this example are the results of large scale studies, indicating that dominance can be an effective source of influence. They found that leaders who are motivated by dominance tend to be more effective[25] and are more frequently seen by others as leaders[26].

Given that leadership is a relational process that unfolds over time, influence can take many forms[9] [27]. Your influence can occur through formal (emanating from your position, role, or title) as well as informal channels (coming from your informal conversations and activities at work). It can be intentional (for example, you write a well-crafted email with the intention of influencing someone) or accidental (for example, you have a casual conversation, with no intention of influence in mind, that ends up influencing someone). Influence can take the form of a life-changing interaction with rippling effects, or a series of efforts that produce incremental changes over time. Your dominant leadership style also tends to produce unique forms of influence and, depending on the context, different reactions from followers. Even your silence can be as influential as your speech in conveying a powerful leadership message.

This means that, in one way or another, influence is an element of leadership. Sometimes influence will be more blunt and overt, other times it will manifest in more subtle and indirect ways[10]. Either way, it is present and largely shapes the way followers see their work and the meaning they extract from it.


The existence of others (that is, of followers) is also a necessary element of leadership, popping up in all definitions we reviewed. To say that leadership only occurs when there are people following the leader seems nothing but a truism. However, to fully understand what leadership is, it is important to think about why others, the followers, should be included in the definition. There are two main reasons for that.

First, acts of leadership (or attempts to influence others) do not grant you leadership status automatically. For leadership to occur, others also need to decide to follow you. Thus, leadership happens when acts of leadership are combined with acts of followership[28].

Let’s look at an illustration on the importance of followers for leadership to occur. Hamadryas baboons like to sleep in large groups on cliffs. In the morning, after a refreshing night of sleep, some try to lead the group by moving towards areas where food is available. Sometimes the group remains still and the aspiring leader returns to the group unfulfilled – leadership did not occur. However, when the group decides to follow, the leadership aspirations of that baboon become a reality, at least temporarily[8]. Here’s another example (now in real time) of the importance of others for leadership:

It seems reasonable to say that there is no leadership when you attempt to influence others and they do not follow you. However, there is also no leadership when others grant you a leadership role and you decline it. For example, imagine that you are the most qualified person to solve an emergency issue at work. Due to your competence, others decide to grant you leadership. However, you decline it. This could happen for many reasons. It could be because you are already dealing with other pressing issues, because you fail to see it as an opportunity to develop your leadership competencies, or because you believe you would not be an effective leader in that situation. Regardless of the motive, in this case leadership did not occur.

Evolutionary perspectives provide another explanation for why followers are a requisite for leadership. According to these perspectives, leadership and followership are adaptive strategies that early humans developed to effectively coordinate their collective efforts[8] [22]. For example, for a group of early humans to move to another area or to keep peace with competing groups, it would be advantageous to have leaders and followers. Without these two strategies (leadership and followership), coordination would be challenging – straightforward things like deciding what to do, when to do it, and who to do it would be rather difficult to accomplish. And the consequences of poor coordination would have been serious. Leadership might thus be an evolutionary solution to boost the probability of a group’s survival. It follows that natural selection should have favored groups where leadership emerged and followers were able to effectively recognize it.

What this evolutionary perspective tells us is that leadership only occurs in groups and because of groups[20]. So if you decide to take a program on leading yourself towards your goals or on improving your leadership skills, that is not exactly leadership based on current definitions[6]. Others are as necessary for you to become a leader.

Shared goals

Goals also appear in most definitions. However, while in some cases shared goals are mentioned, in other cases only goals appear in the definition. This variation reflects one of the most controversial issues in leadership: the purpose and outcome of leaders’ differential influence.

Shared goals give leadership an ethical undertone – that is, it suggests that leadership only occurs when both the leader and the larger group benefit from the cooperative work. According to this view, the purpose and the outcome of influence are ethically sound and benefit everyone (leaders, followers, organization, and society)[6]. Influencing others only for personal benefit is not leadership, even when others follow you willingly.

This view is largely supported by evolutionary perspectives and by new forms of leadership, such as ethical and servant leadership. Evolutionary perspectives suggest that leadership and followership are solutions to solve coordination problems that groups face[8]. Thus, we might be naturally inclined to automatically see leadership as something ethical and beneficial for the entire group. Large scale studies also indicate that ethical and servant leaders tend to be more trusted and effective in driving goal accomplishment than other leaders[29] [30]. This indicates that when you have both your and your followers best interests in mind, you enhance the possibility that they will recognize you as a leader.

However, there is also the argument that leadership influence includes all purposes and outcomes, ethical or unethical, for the good of everyone or for selfish reasons[27]. According to this view, as long as followers are on board with the leader, leadership occurs. Funny enough, our own History largely supports this view. For instance, the frequency and magnitude of wrongdoing in organizations indicates that, at least, some followers stood by their unethical or selfish leaders.

Thinking about this dichotomy (any goal vs shared goals) can be useful, particularly when you have difficult decisions to make and you want to be sure that your influence is ethical and for the benefit of everyone. However, thinking exclusively in these terms can be limiting and overwhelming. In real life at work, it is rarely possible to clearly articulate all the purposes and outcomes of your leadership influence. For instance, your good intentions can have multiple unintended consequences and can end up being detrimental to your followers. A goal that benefits your organization might undermine your team. In contrast, sometimes selfish leadership actions can have beneficial outcomes for followers. For example, if you want a raise at work and push your followers to do more, it is possible that they also end up with a raise.

So, could you exploit others for egoistic reasons and still be a leader? Probably yes, but only temporarily. Indeed, estimates indicate that approximately half of the people who reach a leadership position fail[31] [32]. Egoistic and selfish leaders are among those more likely to fail. There are two main reasons for that. First, large scale studies indicate that, regardless of our country or culture, we all value leadership attributes like integrity and fairness[33]. Second, since leadership emerged as a way to facilitate collaborative efforts, we developed a series of mechanisms to detect and punish selfish or biased forms of leadership[20] [34]. For example, we and many other mammals are naturally and particularly attentive to unfair treatment when we work together. As an illustration, see the reaction of these two Capuchin monkeys to what can be perceived as a biased form of leadership – a Capuchin monkey gets a better reward than the other one for the same task.

In contrast, shared goals tend to sustain leadership. You can achieve this by influencing others towards an already shared goal, or by influencing others to build a new, meaningful, and shared goal to pursue. If the goal is already shared, you may use your influence to, for example, anticipate unseen problems, establish priorities, and guide your followers towards short-term goals. If the goal is not yet shared, you may use your influence to, for example, encourage new thinking, and share and collect feedback on your vision for the future. Most effective leaders end up doing both as there are almost always things to continue doing and new things to consider doing.

Do you need to fulfill all elements of leadership to be a leader?

We have seen that leadership occurs at the intersection of four elements: process, influence, others, and shared goals. Nevertheless, would it be possible to exercise leadership if one or more elements were not present? The answer is not straightforward, but when you remove an element you tend to end up with a failed attempt or even with a derailed form of leadership.

Let’s say that you ignore the shared goals element. In such a case, you could find yourself exploiting others for egoistic reasons or being the center of attention without articulating any direction or vision. What if you remove influence? In such a case, you would be working with other people to achieve common goals. However, without differential influence in the group, you would be more like a group member than a leader guiding the initiation, direction and coordination of the work.

The key elements of leadership: Process, influence, others, and shared goals.

Where are traits and behaviors in current definitions of leadership?

Do these definitions imply that leaders’ behaviors, attributes, or characteristics no longer matter for leadership? Not quite. A given behavior, attribute, or characteristic can facilitate or hinder your ability to enact and maintain leadership. For example, extraversion[35], ambition[36], perspective taking[37], and general intelligence[38] have all been linked to leadership enactment and maintenance. These attributes or traits give you the advantage of, for example, being able to understand when and why a given situation requires leadership (general intelligence), take the initiative to lead others (extraversion, ambition), and estimate what your followers actually want to achieve (perspective taking).

Thus, although your behaviors, attributes, or characteristics do not necessarily make you enact leadership, nor are they leadership per se, they matter for leadership quite substantially.

If we see leadership as a leader-follower relationship, your followers’ behaviors, attributes, or characteristics are also relevant. Who your followers are and what they do affect your own behaviors during leadership, and also the nature and the outcomes of the relationship established. For example, your followers may empower you and boost your self-confidence by supporting your efforts, acknowledging your leadership, and deciding to follow you. Similarly, it is well established that most of us willingly accept the leadership influence of people who are experts in the problem at hand; but we also tend to ignore or even ostracize the leadership efforts of exploitative or tyrannical people[8].

Check out this video from Steve Ballmer, former CEO of Microsoft. His behavior may not be exactly your cup of tea or even aligned with how you see leadership. Nonetheless, it is a fine example of an act of leadership. He managed to, in the context of a corporate meeting, interact (process) enthusiastically (influence) with Microsoft employees (who accepted his influence – others) and articulate his love for the company, perhaps to avoid engineers fleeing to another company (shared goals). Although Steve Ballmer’s leadership was not in his behavior, nor in its underlying traits or attributes, these contributed to how the act of leadership started and unfolded.

Issues with current definitions

Overlap with other definitions

At first glance, the four elements of current definitions of leadership seem satisfying. However, defining leadership using these four elements can be problematic. For instance, if you think about it, both management and leadership can be defined with the same four elements[6]. Both assume you work with other people over time (process and others), and that you influence others towards shared goals.

The most common attempt to solve this problem is to accord different functions to leadership and management[39]. The function of management would be to produce order and consistency through, for example, allocating resources, staffing, and solving problems. In contrast, the function of leadership would be to bring forth change and innovation through, for example, sharing a vision and inspiring followers.

These functions are appealing, but insufficient. For example, you may need leadership to maintain visions, ideas, and values that are working (instead of changing them). Similarly, you may need management to drive innovation (instead of driving stability), for example by solving a staffing problem or reallocating resources.

Thus, in recent years, researchers began to attribute other functions to leadership and management[19] [40]. The main function of a manager is to ensure that goals are achieved in the most efficient and effective way. The main function of a leader is to ensure that followers derive a shared meaning for what is being done. For example, leaders can have a role in the ideas, feelings, behaviors, and values followers have about the work at hand or the possibilities ahead. In a way, leaders are managers of meaning at work.

Working, not definitive, definitions

None of the definitions, nor the key elements of each one, are supposed to be permanent. They are largely a reflection of current times and available knowledge. As such, we are dealing with working definitions that are likely to change.

You do not have to go back very far to see the reflection of times and available knowledge in how leadership is defined. Although the lines are somewhat blurry, perspectives have changed substantially throughout the years[14]. From the 1920s to the 1940s the dominant perspective was to equate leadership with leaders’ traits and attributes. Leadership was defined mainly by the set of traits and attributes shared by leaders. During the 1950s and 1960s things shifted and leadership became largely equated with the behaviors of leaders. Leadership was defined primarily by what leaders do. Nowadays, definitions gravitate around the process of influencing others toward achieving shared goals. But new discoveries on, for example, the evolutionary role of leadership[41], may change or even revolutionize our understanding of what leadership is.

Your turn (reflection exercise)

Based on the definitions of leadership and on the key elements we outlined above, consider taking a closer look at your own leadership efforts and followership choices. You can use the questions below as a guide but feel free to follow your own reflection process. In doing so, analyze the extent to which your leadership fulfills all its key elements. If possible, pinpoint eventual biases you may have about what leadership is, and the extent to which they have been influencing your leadership efforts and followership choices. In other words, see if there is a link between the way you see leadership and your own behaviors. Finally, given your context and current relationship status with your followers, contemplate alternative behaviors and strategies that can enact or sustain your leadership.

Here are some questions to guide your reflection. Are you engaging in a continuous and relational process with your followers that, depending on the context, provides resources or leverages existing ones? Are you aware of the impact your leadership influence has on your followers’ thoughts, feeling and behaviors at work? Is the type of influence you most use (charisma, prestige, or dominance) always effective at work, and do you have the versatility to perform different types of influence? Do others accord you leadership, or are you simply relying on a managerial role to influence others? Finally, is everyone on the same page regarding the importance and meaningfulness of what your team or company is trying to achieve?


Approximately half of the people who occupy leadership positions end up failing or derailing in one way or another[42]. These statistics do not appear to bode well for those with leadership aspirations, nor for those already in leadership positions. Not to mention the consequences for followers who accord leadership to someone unable to effectively start, direct, and coordinate their efforts.

With all the “be a leader” messaging out there, many of us end up falling in love with a romanticized and glamorized view of leadership, without understanding the day-to-day work required to be an actual leader. Relying on these views certainty does not make things better. Among other things, these views put you at risk of being unprepared to meet the true challenges associated with leadership, of facing relationship problems with your followers, and of failing to build and sustain an effective team or company. And these are all established reasons for leadership failure[32]. After all, how can you do something well without knowing what it is?

Knowing what leadership is has the potential to make you an actual, if not a better, leader. It can also be useful for potential followers to make informed decisions on whether to follow another person or not. In reality, knowing what leadership is and understanding its underlying elements has practical value for all of us and for multiple facets of our lives (for instance, at work, in our personal lives, or in how we operate in society).

As always, thank you for trusting your time with ManagingLifeAtWork.com. It has been a pleasure to share this information with you. See you all in the next post (do not forget to subscribe to our newsletter and/or to bookmark us). Until then, keep being (or following) an actual leader.

References and further reading

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