Defining Leadership


One of the most overused words in the English language today is "leadership".  Every college and university wants to recruit only leaders, every employer is looking to hire strong leaders, workshops and programs tout claims of developing future leaders...but what do they really mean?  What does it take to be a leader?  What do you do if you are not 100% that you ARE an effective leader?

 And then, how do you articulate to a prospective employer that you are leadership material, either via your resume, your cover letter, or in an interview?  How do you show your manager that you are ready to step into a role with greater responsibility?

 Personally, I believe that we all--even the most introverted or meek among us - take a leadership role in some aspect of our lives.   Peter Drucker, management expert extraordinaire, stated that before you can expect to lead others, you need to be able to lead yourself, and thus true leadership starts with being able to effectively manage oneself.    Each of us makes decisions, big and small, that propel us forward, whether it's studying to get a good score on an SAT/ACT exam, getting into a difficult college program, volunteering for a student organization or charitable group, or developing an app/robot/whatever in your spare time.  All of these show that you stepped up and decided to lead yourself - to go above and beyond.

 In his well-known article, "What Makes a Leader", Daniel Goleman follows a similar theme when he says that sure, those qualities of toughness, determination and vision, which we normally associated with strong leaders are important but the qualities that really set the good leaders apart from the merely OK leaders are self-awareness, self-regulation, personal motivation, empathy, and social skills.

 It seems like what Drucker and Goleman are trying to say is that leadership isn't easily defined but is some sort of combination of personal reflection, and the understanding, acceptance and tolerance that just as you are unique, so is everyone else and a good leader tries to work with others strengths and weaknesses rather than trying to force them to conform.

 When you are trying to impress upon someone that you do have leadership potential, the obvious examples might be being the president of a student organization, managing a small group at work, being the captain of your college tennis team, but just as effective...and perhaps even more effective - might be an example where, as a volunteer for Habitat for Humanity, you noticed that the person next to you was struggling with a particular tool and you took the time to introduce yourself and give them a quick tip to help them out which resulted in that individual being safer, more confident and more productive, with the added benefit that you had to opportunity to learn more about that individual.  Sure, it's not a flashy I-solved-world-hunger sort of example but it shows a potential hiring manager that you observe the world around you, that you see a problem and develop and implement a solution, that you're willing to help others, that you are capable of training others in a positive manner, and that you value team interaction. 

Wow...that sounds like leadership.


Drucker, Peter. "Managing Oneself", Harvard Business Review, January 2005, 9p.

Goleman, Daniel. "What Makes a Leader", Harvard Business Review, January 2004, 12p.

Daniel Goleman web site:

Leadership Interview Questions and Tips for Answering Effectively: