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Defining leadership

How can we define leadership?

We will begin our exploration of leadership with some definitions, although this is not as straightforward as it sounds.

A review of studies of leadership research identified that there are almost as many distinct definitions of leadership as there are those who have attempted to describe it (Stogdill 1974 cited in Northouse 2018: 2). There are certain words used in different ways by different people, and so some meanings are open to our own interpretation. Some definitions treat leadership as process, some as a personality trait, and some as an act or behaviour. Based on all these assumptions and elements, Northouse (2016: 6) defines leadership as a ‘process whereby an individual influences a group of individuals to achieve a common goal’.

Leadership as a process

Defining leadership as a process makes it a mutually beneficial event between the leader and followers. Here, leader affects follower and follower affects leader. This explains that leadership is not a linear event but rather an interactive one. When you start to think about leadership this way, it is not restricted to a designated leader (Bass and Bass 2009).

Leadership as a personality trait

Some of the early researchers explored the reasons why certain people have more leadership abilities compared to others. Leadership was considered equivalent to the strength of personality. The degree of personality of an individual may not be dependent on the degree of influence he can exert upon others (Bowden 1926 cited from Bass and Bass 2009: 16). Bass and Bass (2009: 16) described Bingham’s 1927 definition of a leader as ‘the person who possesses the greatest number of desirable traits of personality and character’.

Leadership as a behaviour

Some theorists consider leadership as activities that direct, engage, encourage, praise and criticise followers. It also demonstrates consideration for followers’ welfare and feelings. Under this theory of leadership as a behaviour, leadership can be considered as successful persuasion rather than coercion. Leaders persuade the followers by the strength of the argument, not by the coercive power of the leader.

You will learn more about the different bases of power and its relationship with leadership in Week 2 of this short course.


Bass, B.M., and Bass, R. (2009) The Bass Handbook of Leadership: Theory, Research, and Managerial Applications. New York: Free Press

Bowden, A.O. (1926) ‘A Study of the Personality of Student Leaders in the United States’. Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology 21: 149-160. cited in Bass, B.M. and Bass, R. (2009) The Bass Handbook of Leadership: Theory, Research, and Managerial Applications. New York: Free Press: 16

Northouse, P.G. (2016) Leadership: Theory and Practice. Los Angeles: SAGE

Stogdill R.M. (1974) Handbook of Leadership: A Survey of Theory and Research. New York: Free Press. cited in Northouse, P.G. (2018) Introduction to Leadership: Concepts and Practice. Los Angeles: SAGE: 2

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