“What Is Leadership?” Is the Wrong Question (with great quotations)

Gary A. DePaul, PhD (he/him/his)
5 min readMar 15, 2019
Simon Sinek quotation: “….When it matters, leaders choose to eat last.”

Leadership: easy to recognize but hard to explain

Experts disagree about what leadership is, and their definitions are as memorable as a corporation’s mission statement. Even Maxwell recognizes the challenge:

Everyone talks about it; few understand it. Most people want it; few achieve it. There are over fifty definitions and descriptions of it in my personal files. What is this intriguing subject we call leadership?

— John C. Maxwell

Here’s what makes defining leadership difficult: Leadership’s meaning is changing. For the past thirty years — especially within the last five, experts have written about a leadership approach that deviates from traditional thinking. Look at these quotations:

But contrary to conventional thinking, I believe the bottom line in leadership isn’t how far we advance ourselves but how far we advance others. That is achieved by serving others and adding value to their lives.
— John C. Maxwell

The goal of a leader is to give no orders.
— Simon Sinek

The rank of office is not what makes someone a leader. Leadership is the choice to serve others with or without any formal rank.
— Simon Sinek

[Leaders] are not focused on themselves, their individual departments, or the work associated with their functional area.
— Kevin and Jackie Freiberg

Leadership is practiced through collaborative relationships…the roles of leader and collaborator are interchangeable…leadership is something leaders and their collaborators do together.
— Kevin and Jackie Freiberg

Leadership, more than anything else, is about the way we think.
— John G. Miller

Everyone is a leader in some part of their job or their life.
— Ken Blanchard and Garry Ridge

Leadership is not about who you are; it’s about what you do.
— James M. Kouzes, and Barry Z. Posner

…leadership is about the action you take.— James M. Kouzes, and Barry Z. Posner

Instead of more “leadership” resulting in more “followership,” I practiced less leadership, resulting in more leadership at every level of the command.
— L. David Marquet

Empowerment is a necessary step because we’ve been accustomed to disempowerment. Empowerment is needed to undo all those top-down, do-what-you’re-told, be-a-team-player messages that result from our leader-follower model.— L. David Marquet

I have more than 100 quotations like these that exemplify how leadership is changing. In upcoming blogs, I’ll share more of them.

What is leadership?

If you’re going to define traditional leadership, you ask, “What is leadership?” That question won’t produce a definition that represents the evolving leadership meaning and the quotations listed above. If you’re going to define leadership in the 21st Century, you have to ask, “Why practice leadership?”

Why practice leadership?

This question makes it easier to eliminate the wrong kind of things from the definition. You want to exclude how and what statements. So, to answer this question, consider this as a possible answer:

The art of getting things done through people

Most definitions that I’ve read usually describe leadership as a way to accomplish something like a shared goal, purpose, objective, or vision. Thus, people use leadership practices to influence a team, group, or organization to take action that gets you closer to achieving something.

Here’s the problem: The art of getting things done through people is actually Mary Parker Follet’s definition of management. According to Follet, management — not leadership — is about getting things done through others. Yet, several traditional leadership experts use a variation of this to define leadership. So, if the reason for practicing leadership isn’t about accomplishing something, then why do we practice leadership?

The Evolved Purpose of Leadership

As part of the subscription to Skillsoft’s Books 24x7, David Marquet facilitated a live event entitled, Turn This Ship Around! How to Create Leadership at Every Level. During the talk, Marquet said something remarkable:

…leadership is not about getting people to do stuff. It’s about getting people to think…I believe that what’s going to win in the 21st Century and in the future is organizations that allow everyone in their organizations to think.

— L. David Marquet

Marquet is on target to get at the why of leadership. With 21st Century Leadership, the focus is to develop others both mentally and morally. No longer is the emphasis on roles such as leaders and followers or on achieving ends.

Here’s why we practice leadership: to help others develop the mental and moral qualities, capabilities, and behaviors. Another way to state this is: to help others build character. Without the need of having followers, including direct reports, anyone from any role can practice this approach to leadership.

This is my formal — and maybe not so memorable — definition of leadership:

A bidirectional performance-improvement discipline that is designed to mature mental and moral qualities, capabilities, and behaviors.

Here’s the informal answer to the question, why practice leadership?

To help others build character

On my website, I’ve uploaded a table showing the leadership definition with related principles, practices, and results.

To be accomplished at leadership, you apply leadership practices while performing a formal role. These practices aren’t limited to managers and roles with direct reports. Anyone at any career level can apply them to help others build character. Doing so, incidentally, leads to substantial improvements in team culture, business results, and ultimately societal results.


  1. John C. Maxwell, Developing the Leader Within You (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1993), 1.
  2. John C. Maxwell, The 21 Irrefutable Laws of Leadership: Follow Them and People Will Follow You (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, 2007), 51.
  3. Simon Sinek, Leaders Eat Last: Why Some Teams Pull Together and Others Don’t(New York: Penguin Group, 2014), 146.
  4. Ibid, 66.
  5. Kevin Freiberg and Jackie Freiberg, Nuts! Southwest Airlines’ Crazy Recipe for Business and Personal Success (Austin: Bard Press, 1996), 331.
  6. Ibid, 299.
  7. John G. Miller, QBQ!: The Question Behind the Question, What to Really Ask Yourself to Eliminate Blame, Victim Thinking, Complaining, and Procrastination(New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 2004), 95.
  8. Ken Blanchard and Garry Ridge, Helping People Win at Work: A Business Philosophy Called “Don’t Mark My Paper, Help Me Get an A” (Upper Saddle River, NJ: FT Press, 2009), 137.
  9. James M. Kouzes, and Barry Z. Posner, The Leadership Challenge: How to Make Extraordinary Things Happen in Organizations, 5th edn. (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2012), 15.
  10. Ibid, 332.
  11. David Marquet, Captain, US Navy (Retired). Turn the Ship Around! A True Story Turning Followers into Leaders, (New York: Penguin Group, 2012), 204.
  12. Ibid, 212.
  13. Ideas on Management, Mary parker Follett (1868–1933), http://ideasonmanagement.blogspot.com/p/mary-parker-follett-1868-1933.html(accessed October 29, 2015).
  14. David Marquet, Live Event: Turn the Ship Around! How to Create Leadership at Every Level. Skillsoft Books24x7, 2014, http://sp8-1.skillport.com/skillportfe/main.action#summary/VIDEOS/RW$9227:_ss_video:65944(Accessed January 10, 2015).

About the author

Gary is a Leadership Author, Researcher, Consultant, and Podcast Guest. His latest book, What the Heck Is Leadership and Why Should I Care?, is available in paperback, eBook, and audiobook. You can learn more about Gary and his other books at https://www.garyadepaul.com.