What Is Leadership?

What is leadership? Let’s find out.

What Is Leadership In A Nutshell?

We first started to scientifically explore leadership in the 20th century. This research has generated as many questions as it has answers.

However, one thing that researchers agree on is that leadership is a mysterious, slippery, and complex thing. Sadly, this consensus provides little practical value to real leaders.

Yet, while leadership is complex, it is possible to define it in a practical way. So, what is leadership in a nutshell?

Leadership is the act of achieving results through the impact you have on your followers.

What Is Leadership In More Depth?

The above answer to the question, ‘What is Leadership?’ has 3 core components.

what is leadership 3 core components


From Drucker to Goleman, experts agree that effective leadership is all about delivering results. Different academics use different words, such as shared objectives, common goals, mutual purpose or vision. Yet, they all agree that leadership involves getting people to achieve something together.

The nature of these results may vary from one organization to the next – and also with the nature of your own role within your organization. Yet all organizations (and units) exist to bring about some form of desired results.

Award-winning authors Jim Kouzes and Barry Posner go further. They claim that leadership is about achieving extraordinary results. Leaders push the frontiers of success beyond what has already been achieved.

So, what is leadership? It is, in part, an unrelenting focus on results.

What are the results that truly matter in your organization? As a leader, you are charged with the challenge of delivering those results.


Leadership is concerned with the achievement of results. But the same is true for virtually everyone in your organization. As a former school principal, I was responsible for improving how well my students did at school. But, so were my teachers, and so were the students themselves. What differentiates an effective leader from an individual star performer

Management guru, the late Peter Drucker, was renowned for his insightful, to-the-point advice. Keeping in line with his reputation, he put it this way.

The only definition of a leader is someone who has followers
Peter Drucker

So, what is leadership? It is, in part, the state of having followers.

If you don’t have followers, then you are not a leader. It doesn’t matter whether you are leading a small team, an entire organization, or anything in between. You must have followers to be a leader.

Followers should include people who report directly to you. However, they can also include anyone you have some influence over, including colleagues and even your own boss.

So, what is leadership? It is, in part, the state of having followers.


Having followers is essential, but it is not enough to make you a leader. You must have a positive impact on those you lead. Impact is a crucial part of leadership.

How do leaders have an impact on their followers? Who you are, what you do, and why you do it all affect the impact you have on your followers.

You are more likely to have an impact on others if you:

  • Possess certain traits
  • Act certain ways
  • Do so for the right reasons

You will find it easier to lead well if you are intelligent, extraverted, assertive, conscientious, and open to experience. It also helps if you possess integrity, an internal locus of control, and a strong desire to influence people and events. Particular traits can help or hinder your leadership. However, you do not need to possess all of these traits to be an effective leader (it just makes things easier).

Your actions are also critical to your success. In general, you need to balance your concern for people with your concern for results. However, there are situations where your focus needs to shift to one over the other. You also need to deliberately seek to influence your followers, appealing to both their heads and their hearts.

Your followers will also judge the intentions behind what you do. These judgments affect the impact that you have. A leader who is perceived to serve a noble cause and who is prepared to make personal sacrifices in service of that cause has more sway with staff than a leader who is seen to act primarily out of self-interest.

Leadership Is Just One Part of Your Job

It is important to realize that leadership is not your sole job. It is but one thing you are responsible for doing.

Most leaders must learn to balance leadership with other competing demands on their time. This includes things you are personally responsible for and managing the day-to-day operations of your organization.

The reality is that leaders perform a wide range of disparate tasks. They can go from a multi-million-dollar budget meeting to discussing how to fix the dishwasher in the common room, and all while receiving seemingly endless requests for information and help.

Leadership involves plumbing as well as poetry
Jim March

Summary: What Is Leadership?

To sum up, leadership is the act of achieving results through the impact you have on your followers.

The nature of the results will vary in different organizations, and with the specific part of the organization, you are leading. Followers include anyone you have influence over, and you can be both a follower and leader. Finally, the impact that you have is shaped by who you are, how you act, and why your followers believe you acted that way.

Hot Topics In Leadership

Now that you have an answer to the crucial question ‘What is leadership?’, you may like to explore some of the Hot Topics in Leadership.


Antonakis, J. Cianciolo, A. T. & Sternberg, J. J. (2018). The Nature of Leadership. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.

Drucker, P. (2004). What Makes An Effective Executive. Harvard Business Review.

Ferris, G. R., Bhawuk, D. P., Fedor, D. F., & Judge, T. A. (1995). Organizational Politics & Citizenship: Attributions of Intentionality & Construct Definition. In M. J. Martinko, Advances In Attributional Theory: An Organizational Perspective (pp. 231-252). Delray Beach, FL: Lucie Press.

Hesselbein, F., Goldsmith, M., & Beckhard, R. (1996). The Leader of the Future: New Visions, Strategies and Practices for the Next Era. Wiley.

Goleman, D. (2000). Leadership That Gets Results. Harvard Business Review, March-April

Judge, T. A., Bono, J. E., Illies, R., & Gerhardt, M. W. (2002). Personality & Leadership: A Qualitative and Quantitative Review. Journal of Applied Psychology, 87, 765-780.

Kouzes, J. M., & Posner, B. Z. (2007). The Leadership Challenge. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Maciariello, J. A. (2005). Peter F. Drucker on a Functioning Society. Leader to Leader, 37, 26-34.

McClelland, D., & Burnham, D. (2003). Power Is The Great Motivator. Best of Harvard Business Review.

Mintzberg, H. (2009). Managing. San Francisco, CA: Berrett-Koehler Publishets, Inc.

Northouse, P. G. (2018). Leadership: Theory and Practice (Eighth Edition ed.). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.

Yukl, G. (2013). Leadership In Organizations (Eighth ed.). Harlow, Essex: Pearson Education Limited.



How to Create a Compelling Company Vision

company vision feature image apple tree analogy

Leaders set the direction for their organization. And, one potent way they do this is through creating a compelling company vision.

company vision feature image apple tree analogy

While I use the words company vision, you could apply the advice in this article to any form of organization. You can even apply it to sub-divisions of an organization.

What Is a Company Vision?

A company vision is simply a mental picture of a future state that you want to move your organization towards.

Vision is an essential part of transformational leadership. And, researchers have linked transformational leadership to higher levels of staff satisfaction, motivation and performance. So, your vision for your company matters.

The Apple Tree Analogy

John Kotter uses a simple apple tree analogy to explain how company vision works.

One leader takes charge and starts commanding people to get up and move. ‘Move now,’ she screams. She then continues barking in much the same way as a drill sergeant.

A leader of a different group manages the move down to the last detail – ‘hop up, leave your personal belongings on the ground, march towards the apple tree, do not get closer than 2 feet from anyone else, leave your personal belongings.

A third leader says to her group, ‘it’s going to rain soon, why don’t we walk over to that apple tree. We can stay dry and have fresh apples for lunch.’

It was the third leader who used vision. Yes, the vision she used was with a small group of people, rather than a company vision, but the lesson remains the same.

This example shows that a company vision does not have to be complicated, complex or mystical. Nor is it about hanging a vision statement on the wall.

Rather, it is about motivating people to move in a particular direction.

What Makes A Vision Compelling?

Some authors have described the characteristics of a compelling vision. But, only a few are backed up by empirical research.

Leadership Sage is dedicated to offering you evidence-based advice. So, the 7 elements of a compelling company vision listed below are based on this research.

Compelling Company Vision Element 1: Be Desirable

The first thing that makes a vision compelling is its desirability. You want your vision to inspire, motivate and offer direction to those you lead. So, you must ensure that it appeals to their hopes, ideals and values.

Compelling Company Vision Element 2: Be Clear

Secondly, you must make sure that your vision offers people a clear picture of what the desired future looks like. You want your vision to give direction to those you lead. A vague or fuzzy picture will not be able to do this.

Compelling Company Vision Element 3: Be Broad

Your company vision needs to be clear. But it must also be broad. You want it to guide people’s actions, while still allowing your staff to apply it creatively to their own work. Moreover, you want to motivate your followers in an ongoing way. Specific goals lose their motivational value once they have been met.

Compelling Company Vision Element 4: Be Challenging

To be motivating, your vision must be challenging and even audacious. Yet, it must also be realistic. If your vision is not challenging enough, it will not motivate your staff to do anything different to what they are already doing. But, if people don’t believe it is achievable, it won’t motivate them either.

Compelling Company Vision Element 5: Be Focused on the Long-Term

Goals and objectives focus on short-term results, while vision focuses on the long-term. Your vision needs to guide your staff far into the future. This is essential due to the scope and scale of the challenge inherent in your vision.

Compelling Company Vision Element 6: Be Concise

A compelling company vision is concise. But not to the point of being meaningless or unclear. You must be able to explain your vision in less than 5 minutes. And, as a general rule, it should be made of less than 23 words. This allows you to integrate it into all of your communications and it helps others to remember it.

Compelling Company Vision Element 7: Be Stable

While it may be worth refining your vision periodically, you don’t want to be changing it every other day. So, a good vision must be able to endure foreseeable changes in the environment, including changes in technology.

In Short

Compelling company visions are:

  1. Desirable
  2. Clear
  3. Broad
  4. Challenging
  5. Focused on the long-term
  6. Concise
  7. Stable

Sample Company Visions

To make unique sports cars that represent the finest in Italian design and craftsmanship, both on the track and on the road.
Company Vision for Audi
To provide access to the world’s information in one click.
Company Vision for Google
Making the best possible ice cream, in the nicest possible way.
Company Vision for Ben & Jerry’s
To develop leaders who will one day make a global difference.
Company Vision for Harvard University
The web’s most convenient, secure and cost-effective payments solution.
Company Vision for PayPal
To be the world’s most customer-centric company.
Company Vision for Amazon




Bennis, W., & Nanus, B. (1985). Leaders: Strategies for Taking Charge. New York: Harper & Row.

Kotter, J. P. (1996). Leading Change. Boston, MA: Harvard Business School Press.

Kouzes, J. M., & Posner, B. Z. (2007). The Leadership Challenge. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Nanus, B. (1992). Visionary Leadership. San Francisco: Wiley.

Research References

Awamleh, R., & Gardner, W. L. (1999). Perceptions of Leader Charisma and Effectiveness: The Effects of Vision Content, Delivery, and Organizational Performance. Leadership Quarterly, 10, 345–373.

Baum, J. R., Locke, E. A., & Kirkpatrick, S. A. (1998). A Longitudinal Study of the Relation of Vision and Vision Communication to Venture Growth in Entrepreneurial Firms. Journal of Applied Psychology, 83 (1), 43-54.

Kantabutra, S. (2008). Vision Effects in Thai Retail Stores: Practical Implications. International Journal of Retail & Distribution Management, 36 (4), 323-342.

Kantabutra, S. (2008). What Do We Know About Vision? Journal of Applied Business Research, 24 (2), 127-138.

Kantabutra, S., & Avery, G. C. (2007). Vision Effects in Customer and Staff Satisfaction: An Empirical Investigation. Leadership & Organization Development Journal, 28 (3), 209-229.

Yukl, G. A. (1999). An Evaluation of Conceptual Weaknesses in Transformational and Charismatic Leadership Theories. The Leadership Quarterly, 10 (2), 285-305.