“Leadership: A Provisional Definition” (with S. Wolton)


A leader, like an institution or culture, is typically understood in its instantiated rather than its essential form. We are reasonably confident that Congress, marriage, and the stock market are institutions, even though we are not especially sure what, exactly, defines an institution. Hip hop, Coco Chanel, and Dada all find expressions in culture, while culture itself remains elusive. And so it is with leaders. We are confident that Adolf Hitler, Martin Luther King, and Mao Tse Tung count in the category. Though we may not admire them all, we recognize that each indisputably was a leader. Still, as a purely conceptual matter, we know very little about what distinguishes these three men from other agents of social change.

There exists, of course, a massive body of work on leadership. The vast preponderance of such scholarship, however, focuses on what leaders do, what traits they exhibit, and what modes of persuasion they employ. We see them in motion, fully formed, exercising influence and attracting plaudits. The expressed purpose of this scholarship is to unearth the personal qualities and styles of leadership (Greenstein 2004; George and George 1998); assess the capacity of leaders to refashion the environments in which they work (Burns 2004; Edwards 2013; Hargrove 1989); fit leaders within broader theories of democratic representation by distinguishing, for instance, delegates from trustees (Jacobs and Shapiro 2000); catalogue the biographies of individuals we all would consider leaders (highlights include Robert Caro’s magisterial works on Lyndon Johnson and Edmund Morris’s on Theodore Roosevelt); and identify the structural conditions under which leaders exercise more or less influence (Skowronek 1997).

Rarely, though, does this research pause and define its terms. It speaks elliptically about leadership, making the class of individuals it wishes to call “leaders” opaque and undifferentiated. As Morris Fiorina and Kenneth Shepsle (1989, 17) recognized a quarter century ago, most studies of leadership are, from a theoretical standpoint, “neither precise nor reliable,” and the overall literature on the topic is sufficiently fragmented that “few formal deductive treatments of the subject have emerged.” Or as John Alquist and Margaret Levi argue in a recent literature review (2011, 3), “the theoretical understanding of the causal importance of leadership is still fairly impoverished,” in no small part because the concept of leadership itself is “vague” and “contested.” Our definitions of leaders are akin to definitions dogs as animals with four legs. They are accurate, as far as they go, but they do not go nearly far enough.

In this chapter, we try to add some conceptual clarity to the discussion. We do so in two steps. First, we characterize, rather axiomatically, basic criteria that any definition of leadership must satisfy. After illustrating some of the deficiencies of existing definitions, we then present our own. In it, we suggest that a leader distinguishes herself by: the objectives that she extols; the followers who not only revere her, but who willingly take actions that advance these objectives; and the ways in which she comes to personify these objectives. To be a leader, all of these conditions must be met. Should any one of these criteria not be satisfied, an individual, no matter how influential, relinquishes her status as leader.

From the outset, we want to be clear about our own objectives for this chapter. We do not endeavor to explain how one can reliably identify leaders in the material world. We have little to say about the very real challenges of detection, except insofar as we distill a minimal understanding of what one ought to look for. We also do not evaluate the impacts of leaders on the real world. We do not argue that leadership is indispensable for the realization of social order, nor do we require that the actions of leaders and their followers are in any sense “good.” Our objectives are more circumscribed that all of this. We hope to provide some conceptual clarity about the meaning of leadership, and to characterize what it requires both of those who exercise it and those who stand enthrall of it. If we can accomplish this much, we think, we will have done some good.

Read full paper here.