What is Leadership and Why is it so Difficult to Define?

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By: Randall D. Swain, Ph.D., professor, EKU Department of Government

One of the most enduring memories of my college experience occurred on my very first day of class in the fall semester of my freshman year in an ROTC class. As the students waited for the arrival of the instructor, we began to chat among ourselves. The chatter became so incessant that we barely noticed when the instructor entered and took his place at the lectern in front of the class. You could have heard a pin drop as we waited for him to take attendance and begin his instruction.  Rather than commencing, he asked the class a rather strange question – or so we thought.

“Who’s in charge, here?” he asked.  For a few seconds, we looked at each other, rather perplexed, I might add, and he posed the question again. After one of us timidly responded by saying, “no one”, he begged to differ and proceeded with a mini lesson about the nature of human behavior. He explained that whenever people are assembled together in a group setting, even in an informal group setting – as was the case with my class just before he arrived – a leader eventually emerges. He asserted that this phenomenon could be observed even in a kindergarten classroom. He stated that if we just sat back and watched, at some point in the interaction among those four and five year-old children, we would see one or two of them begin to exert influence over their peers, indicated by such expressions of, “hey y’all, let’s go over to the sandbox”, or, “who wants to play (XYZ) game, now?”  It was at that point that I realized the professor’s delayed entrance was his plan all along, and that he had perhaps spent those first few moments outside of the classroom watching the interaction among us.

I have often reflected on that experience, which gets at the heart of what is perhaps one of the most elusive concepts – the leadership concept. While the first formal studies of leadership began to appear in print around the early 1940s, evidence of human interest in the concept extend back to antiquity. Our fascination with leadership has not been limited to how it occurs among humans. Indeed, zoologist and biologist have studied the nature and impact of leadership among a number of animal species. Primates, wolves, and Orcas are just a few of the species that researchers have studied impact of leadership on group behavior.[i]

A near countless number of theories and schools of thought have sprung up since then, to critique and challenge the assumptions of trait theory. Moreover, many of these theories are actually mutually supportive schools of thought such as transactional leadership theory. There is also charismatic leadership theory, an inquiry that has its origins in efforts to explain the emergence of heads of state in the early twentieth century who became dictators and eventually led the world into a second world war.  Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini were the primary focus of those inquiries, and they led to further inquiries about notions of power and leadership. There is also transformational leadership theory, servant leadership, theories about ethics-based leadership – and this list goes on. When considered from this perspective, it becomes easy to understand why efforts to define leadership have proven to be so challenging.

Regardless of the challenge involved in defining leadership, the human fascination with leadership continues unabated. Wikipedia’s definition of leadership – “a process of social influence in which persons can enlist the aid and support of others in the accomplishment of a common task” – forms the basis of some leadership schools of thought that are debated in academia. This conceptualization is useful because it recognizes leadership as a process that encapsulates organizational efforts to realize a common goal. Whether in business, government, sports, or in religious institutions, the common denominator for all of them is that the need for capable leaders is a universal concern. Furthermore, the contemporary landscape for most organizational context is dynamic and characterized by unpredictability and a shifting landscape. This reality suggests that our fascination with leadership will continue into the long-term foreseeable future.

[i]Cousin, I., Krause, J., Franks, N. et al. Effective leadership and decision-making in animal groups on the move. Nature 433, 513–516 (2005). https://doi.org/10.1038/nature03236and Rolf O Peterson, Amy K Jacobs, Thomas D Drummer, L David Mech, and Douglas W Smith. Leadership behavior in relation to dominance and reproductive status in gray wolves, Canis lupus. Canadian Journal of Zoology. 80(8): 1405-1412. https://doi.org/10.1139/z02-124

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