A Working Definition of Leadership

Leadership is a big and complex subject. I wrote a thesis on leadership development and perused dozens of academic papers describing leadership. If you were to browse the business section of a typical bookstore you would find dozens of books with the word “leadership” in their title. If you do a search using the term leadership on Amazon you will be overwhelmed by the number of results. How do we take this wealth of information and distill it into something useful for the community activist? We will begin by attempting to describe what leadership is and then to offer a working definition.

There are some common traits ascribed to people who are called leaders: these include the ability to create a vision and shared goals in others; the ability to coordinate effective work through others; and authenticity, which is described generally as open and honest behavior. John P. Kotter (2013), writing in the Harvard Business Review, provides this description, “Leadership is about vision, about people buying in, about empowerment and, most of all, about producing useful change.”

The traits and description offered above show that leadership is not necessarily associated with titles or offices or job descriptions. Seemingly, the fundamental attribute of a leader is their ability to discover and describe a problem while offering a solution that inspires others to action. Abraham Zaleznik (2004), also writing in the Harvard Business Review, states, “The influence a leader exerts … changes the way people think about what is desirable, possible, and necessary” (p. 76).

That leadership requires no formal authority or powers is also important. While this does not preclude a leader from holding a formal title or office, it does imply they are not necessary. It is reasonable to infer from this that leadership is informal; or, at least, tends to lack a formal context. To quote Kotter (2013) again, “Leadership is not about attributes, it’s about behavior.”

An activist leader is a regular citizen who discovers and describes a problem in their community, and consequently influences and inspires other citizens to participate in solving that problem. An activist may do this work without pay and without any formal support. Success or failure in such an endeavor is highly dependent on trust and charisma.

For the purposes of the NCR 594 Project, leadership will be defined as the ability to inspire or influence others to work towards the leader’s stated goal(s). This is a narrow definition designed to fit with the purposes of the NCR 594 Project. I will expand upon and explain this definition in further detail in future posts.


Kotter, J.P. (2013, January 9). Management is (still) not leadership. Harvard Business Review, digital article. Retrieved from https://hbr.org/2013/01/management-is-still-not-leadership

Zaleznik, A. (2004 January). Managers and leaders: Are they different? Harvard Business Review, digital article. Retrieved from https://hbr.org/2004/01/managers-and-leaders-are-they-different

Published by Leo

Leo Barrera Expert at dealing with conflict. Grim, determined, a little chaotic, a threat to good order. Veteran. Chicano. Husband. Father. Writer. Photographer. Gardener.

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