KingChapman Blog

What Is Leadership?

Posted by Bob Chapman on Sep 19, 2018 11:35:08 AM


“What is Leadership?” is an interesting question.

At first this may seem like a dumb question, since “everyone knows” what leadership is. That is, each person knows how they use the term leadership. In spite of our confidence that we all know the answer to “What is Leadership?”, in reality the best answer might be “It depends”. To be thorough, the most accurate response is “It depends on the context in which the word leadership is used”.

Let’s explore that further. Each of us uses a word like leadership inside of a context in which we are thinking at that moment. To better understand the word context, think of it as assumptions, beliefs, and experiences which, while in the background, actively shape how a person perceives events and phenomenon as they occur. While we are largely unaware of our contexts, these contexts shape our experiences, perceptions and thinking. As example, if you are in a business conversation, the term leadership will be shaped by your experiences in business as well as how the organizations with which you are engaged use the word leadership.

The context in which words are used clearly shapes the meaning of that word. As example, consider how the word beauty takes on very different meanings given the specific context. “Beauty” can be used to describe an attractive woman as well as “beauty products”. However, the same word (beauty) can be used to describe a physical injury to the eye (a black eye as expressed as “that shiner’s a real beauty”), and many physical objects such as an auto, classic sailboat, etc. Same word, but very different meanings given the context in which the word is used. 

Power of Context

The words leader and leadership are also excellent examples of where the context in which the word used gives the word unique meanings. For example:
  • Academic study, e.g., the various theories of leadership
  • Military, e.g., “leaders of men”
  • Positions of power, e.g., President of the US is the “leader of the free world”
  • Performance, e.g., in golf the term used for the scoreboard is “The Leaderboard”. The term leader is used extensively in sports to denote top performance
  • Prestige, e.g., the leading product
  • Thought, e.g., a person or organization is considered to be “a thought leader”. This implies excellence and being out in front of others in areas which matter

The context of academic study is a particularly interesting example of the power of context in shaping meaning in the use of the terms leader and leadership. Leadership is a formal subject matter of study. Yet, many to most of those doing the research and teaching are not leaders and have not experienced being developed as a leader. So many of these theories are intellectually fascinating but fall short in actually developing leadership in business. I have taught a graduate course in leadership to executive students for several years. For my first year of teaching I adopted a well-respected textbook which another faculty had used. This text presented the various leadership theories and schools of thought. While the text presented a good summary of academic endeavors and philosophy, it actually provided little insight to the students on how they could develop their own leadership and the leadership of others. As I researched the other popular graduate level texts, I found them all to be similar. These texts were written by university faculty and presented academic theories with the intention of being used in academic settings. This started my journey of exploration into understanding the contribution made by these academic theories as well as how best to equip people in business to develop as leaders.

At first it seemed that these academic theories made little impact on people in business. As an example, an early leadership theory was called the Great Man Theory. As the name suggests, this theory assumed that leaders were men, who were born into prominent families and attended prestigious schools. Their success as leaders was attributed to their being “born as great men” within the social context of that time. At first blush I thought this is a quaint theory which should be written about in historical novels. Then upon reflection I realized that while this philosophy has long been discredited, the influence still continues with many people who think that good leadership is based on capabilities that people are “born with”. This belief of “born leaders” persists in conversations today, even though completely discounted from studies for the past number of decades.

Another popular topic for academic research and writing has been traits of leaders. This is based on the assertion that leaders are successful because of certain traits. For decades, research has been conducted in hopes of identifying the personal traits which assure leadership success and predicts who will become future leaders. While there continues to be many who espouse the various trait theories, there is little evidence of validity as evidenced by a recent book by Jeffrey Pfeffer. Pfeffer is on the faculty at Stanford Business School and is a widely respected authority on leadership. He writes:

Characterizing leaders’ behavior as somehow dependent on inherent traits provides an easy excuse for avoiding the sort of behavior and strategies that may be required to get things done. 

Context of Leadership in Business

The power of context to shape the meaning of the word leader and leadership is particularly strong in business. It is widely accepted that leadership is crucial in actions which promote growth, innovation and value creation. The paradox comes when we realize that a leader is widely accepted as essential, yet there is often confusion on what leadership actually means. In most businesses, the context for leadership is a formal position of power within the organization. This can be seen in the common practice of referring to the more senior positions in an organization as leaders. The inference is that these senior positions wield more power and are concerned with the larger issues affecting that organization.

This practice of asserting that leaders and leadership is position-based is vividly seen in the interchangeable use of the terms leadership and management. This practice is so common that most people think that leadership and management are essentially the same. Some will say that leaders are the “people at the top” while managers are the “people in the middle”. While common, this collapsing of the meaning of the two words is dangerous for anyone concerned with organizational growth, strategic execution and transformation. The danger comes from assuming that capabilities of management are what are needed for success. This is a false assumption, as most management practices are based on asserting and maintaining control, which will inadvertently hamper and thwart organizational growth, strategic execution and transformation. For a more thorough conversation on this topic see Chapman’s “Are Leadership and Management the Same?” 

The context of each organization shapes how leadership is perceived in that organization. Too often the existing context of leadership is based on historical precedents which were negative in terms of promoting growth, innovation and transformation. This existing context must change if the desired results are to be achieved. Further, this changing context of leadership must include dealing with the perceived contradictions that occur in organizations. Jeffrey Pfeffer asserts that leadership is about getting “things done in complex, interdependent systems in which people pursue multiple, often conflicting, agendas”.

I assert that organizations who seek rapid growth, innovation and strategic execution should approach their situation as an organizational transformation. This creates a different context which opens up opportunities for new ways of thinking and acting. This in turn creates new expectations for growth and innovation. To achieve this, new contexts of leadership are required. The term Transformational Leadership is used to describe this new context of leadership. Chris Duprey contends that a transformational leader is someone who:
  • Inspires others;
  • Develops and articulates a vision or plan;
  • Establishes and maintains a positive environment within a group or organization;
  • Inspires the growth and development of their people;
  • Shows trust by delegating authority and underwriting decisions made; and
  • Someone who truly cares about the organization and the people within it.

Transformational leadership is the context for leadership which will be used for the remainder of this article.

Transformational Leadership

Transformational leadership begins with intense commitment to achieving the results needed to create value for the organization. This intense focus on value creation is a core commitment of the transformational leaders I have been privileged to work with. Further, I have observed this strong commitment with leaders in corporations as well as non-profit organizations. These strong commitments come from an insistence that their organizations exist to create value. For corporations this is value to customers, communities and employees which ultimately translates to financial value to shareholders. Not-for-profit organizations also exist to create value for its stakeholders, whether serving specific individuals or larger “communities”. Of course, I have also worked around many executives and managers who did not share this intense commitment to value creation for their organizations. These individuals were predictably more concerned about themselves than their organizations, and in no way met the criterion to be considered a transformational leader.

Transformational leaders know that a key element in creating value begins with their organization and predictably delivering results. Further value is created when results are achieved far beyond what is expected and what competitors are achieving. When extraordinary results are being achieved, then leaders have excellent opportunities to speak with their various stakeholders regarding the exciting future of the organization. In corporations, substantial stock price appreciation occurs when there is a believable growth story told by creditable leaders. What makes the growth story believable and the leaders credible is a track record of results.

A track record of results can be sustained when there are strong leaders who become the source of that organization’s achieving significant results and creating value. To be sustainable, these leaders need to be found throughout the organization. As an example, in several of my firm’s transformations of large industrial organizations, writers from the Wall Street Journal and other financially focused news organizations conducted in-depth interviews with front-line workers and union-leaders to document the magnitude of the transformations which were occurring.

Transformational leadership is crucial to creating breakthroughs in financial performance, revenue growth, innovation, and other forms of organizational transformation. In the early stages of transformation, it is important to have people in management positions of power redefining themselves and becoming transformational leaders. When executives and managers are being leaders, a pivotal place in the transformation journey has been reached. As I collaborate with clients to develop the architecture for an organization’s transformation, a crucial element involves developing the leadership capabilities of the executives. Of course, developing leadership requires commitment on the part of these executives to develop themselves. If an executive persists in unwillingness to be a leader, then other decisions are called for. Employees use the actions and behaviors of the executives as a barometer the executive’s commitment to the transformation. If employees perceive the executives are not committed, then they wisely choose to not take the transformation seriously. When that happens, achieving success in the transformation becomes much more difficult if not impossible to achieve.

The executives are not the only employees who need to become a leader. For success in transformation, leadership must come from all over the organization. Further, in the most successful transformations I have seen, front-line employees become powerful leaders whose creativity, drive and influence is essential. As I co-design transformational interventions with our clients, I assure that great attention is given to engaging and training employees on the front-line to become transformational leaders. When the executives take a stand that every employee can be a leader and is asked to step out and lead in their own unique manner, amazing things happen in that organization. 

What is Leadership?

Now that we have established the context for this article to be that of transformational leadership, let’s explore the question “What is Leadership”. From my experience, there are four key elements to this answer. The first is producing big results - transformational leadership is passionate about achieving results. The second key element is the results are exceptional. A third element is that the exceptional results are achieved through the actions of others. A fourth element is that the organization is altered – the exceptional results are both achieved and the organization has altered so it will sustain this new level of results.
  1. Results. The essence of leadership is to achieve results by making things happen which were otherwise not going to happen. These results are evidence of growth, inspiration and new strategies.
  2. Exceptional. This level of results could not be anticipated or predicted given the current predictions and historical performance of the organization. Further, these results are highly desirable and if achieved would create exceptional value for the stakeholders of the organization.
  3. Extraordinary actions of others. Others in the organization are inspired to take extraordinary actions and this inspiration can be traced back to leaders in that organization. This inspired action of others is a hallmark of transformational leadership.
  4. Altered organization to sustain results. Achieving results requires alteration in design of the organization. This design creates a change in context which is needed to achieve the initial results and then to sustain them. It is one thing to achieve breakthrough results. It is another to sustain those results in order to create value over time. Creating value requires both accomplishing and sustaining the exceptional results. Implicit in sustaining results is altering the context and design of the organization in ways which assure the continued inspiration and involvement of people.

Of course, critics say “but this does not specifically identify what the leader is doing”. While this is accurate, it is largely irrelevant given the focus is on the consequences of transformational leadership rather than specific antecedent actions or traits. This focus on consequences and results achieved through transformational leadership acknowledges that there is no single right approach or style. Each situation has unique circumstances and organizational contexts, so that leadership must adapt and learn how to inspire others to act in extraordinary ways to achieve exceptional results. This absolute importance of adapting and learning is demonstrated by how often a leader or group of leaders are very successful in one setting, and then fail miserably in the next setting. Often the reason for this failure is that the leaders acted as they had previously in a different setting rather than being alert and adapting to the subtleness of the new situation.

These critics also complain “how can I see what the leader is doing?”. Again, this complaint is accurate, since if you are only watching the leader for clues as to what is happening, you are looking in the wrong place. In transformational leadership, the important actions are happening with those around the leader. That is, inspirational leadership can best be seen in the inspired actions of others.

One particular dynamic which can be seen around a transformational leader is the intense actions and commitment to developing others as leaders. Emergence of indigenous leaders all across an organization is essential to success in transformation. 


The inquiry into “What is Leadership?” depends on the context of the organization. This article looks at that question from the perspective of transformational leaders. Exceptional results achieved through the extraordinary actions of others along with alteration in the organization’s context is evidence of transformational leadership. These actions produce sustainable value in organizations. The evidence of transformational leaders is seen in extraordinary actions of those around the leader.


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