Defining leadership

I define leadership with three criteria:

  • You want to change an aspect of the world, large or small.
  • You take action to achieve this change without being told to.
  • You get other people to help you.

Vision, initiative, persuasion. It’s as simple as that. Many people exhibit some of these traits but you need all three to be a leader: we don’t need to over-use the ‘leadership’ word – there are other virtues.

It’s another one of those classic three circle Venn diagrams, where combinations of two out of three explain typical scenarios (see the Triple A for another example). Vision and initiative, without persuasion, define the lone wolf. Initiative and persuasion, without vision, define the steward. Vision and persuasion, without initiative, define the commentator.


I think this definition does let us see teaching as a form of leadership, if you include children within the category of people. In this instance the ‘change’ is the acquisition of new knowledge and understanding and the ‘help’ required is their attention, concentration and reflection. The domain of leadership for teachers is inside the the heads of young people.

Leadership vs management

It is common to ask people what they see as the difference between leadership and management. The subtext is often that leadership is more important than management. I don’t buy that. Management is vital. It is a noble task and it is the force that builds places in which people can do great work, where things get done. Never be embarrassed to call yourself a manager.

I think it is simplest to say that management is a particular job and leadership is one of the ways you can do that job (or many other jobs).

You can be a leader without being a manager – you just have have to act to persuade people to realise your vision of how things should be. However, many leaders would be more effective if they paid more attention to management.

You can be a manager without being a leader. Although in most cases we should want managers to show leadership. And I don’t see how you can be a great manager without being a leader.

There are many formal definitions of management. Essentially a manager organises the work of a group of people. This involves setting goals, planning and coordinating tasks, directing or controlling activity and monitoring results.

Line management

This definition can cover roles like project and programme management, financial management, product management. A ‘line manager’ has standing formal authority over the actions and activities of a group of people. To do this also requires some combination of selection, development, communication, troubleshooting, appraisal and reward, in addition to the tasks above. It’s about building the capacity of the group to do the work. These activities can, of course, be done well or badly. That’s often where leadership comes in.

Line managers rarely perform these people related duties in isolation from the policies of the wider organisation but it is unhealthy either to take decision-making authority away from line managers or to allow them to pass the more onerous duties to others, usually Human Resources. HR can help line managers do these things better, and ensure consistency, but managers need to manage.

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