Leadership – What’s in a Name?

“KINGSHIP comes from the gods.”

It is entirely understandable that the people of the earliest civilizations should have concluded that the strong leadership of a king was a gift of providence. The family depended on the protection and provision of the father and the nurture of the mother, while clans and tribes extended these natural commitments, building on the ties of kinship and custom. However, when people began to live together in cities, and that’s where the word ‘civilisation’ comes from, the need for the order, security, and justice that give people the freedom to flourish, was experienced on an altogether different scale.

Of course, the leadership provided by ancient kings did not always measure up, and the prospect of an abuse of power was as live a possibility then as it has been ever since. But people in those times could quickly tell the difference between real leadership and any corruption of the ideal, just as we should be able to do now. We all know what leadership is, and what it is not.

Why then do we have the interminable wrangling about how to define the concept, apart from the obvious reason that there is a multi-billion dollar leadership industry, overcrowded with players, all hell-bent on outmaneuvering competitors with some new angle or pseudo-scientific fad? There are, naturally, many reasons, as is always the case when dealing with the rich complexity of human motivation. However, one specific reason provides justification for all the others.

An intellectual revolution 700 years ago resulted in modern philosophers rejecting the Realism of classical philosophy in favour of Nominalism, the belief that universal concepts like pumpkin, pig, and planet are just names, so that only individual pumpkins, pigs, and planets have real existence. Plato’s Realism had said that universal concepts actually exist in another realm, as perfect models of which individuals are imperfect copies. Aristotle’s Moderate Realism, however, saw universals as the forms (essences, ideas, or natures) that combine with matter to constitute particular things.

The Nominalists rejected Aristotle’Leadership-Dictionarys way of understanding reality in terms of four types of cause: formal, material, efficient, and final. The Four Causes ask, “What is it?” “What is it made of?” “Who or what made it?” and “What is it for?” Nominalism threw out the formal and final causes that explain how things have specific natures and are oriented to definite goals.

This was a denial of meaning and purpose in the world, leaving humans free to decide for themselves the meaning and purpose of things and to remake the world according to their own desires. It is hardly surprising that this philosophical error created immediate quandaries, e.g. how can we have human rights if there is no such thing as human nature? Most of the problems of modern philosophy, in fact, stem from that intellectual revolution.

However, our concern here is defining leadership, and the implications of Nominalism were that its meaning and purpose were up for grabs, like everything else. For example, we have the absurdity of an on-going controversy over how science should be defined even as scientific endeavour goes on in every corner of the globe. We also hear education on the lips of every politician, pedagogue, and parent without any clear and common idea of what education actually means, and many other baffling contradictions hamper honest debate.

Yet, as with leadership, we all know the meaning of these concepts and should recognize when people are distorting the meaning to satisfy certain agendas. When Thrasymachus said justice was “nothing other than the interest of the stronger”, he didn’t change the nature of justice but merely exposed his own cynicism. When the USSR called its constitution democratic, it didn’t change the nature of democracy but simply revealed its own deceit.

Leadership, like law, logic, and love, or like the Pythagorean theorem, the Golden Ratio, and the phenomenon of symmetry, is something that occurs naturally in human society – we didn’t invent it, we discovered it. When we define it, we simply have to address the reality and not some fantasy that happens to suit our own self-interest.

So what is the reality? A few famous definitions help put things in perspective.

Harvard Professor, Abraham Zaleznik, believed that “Leadership requires using power to influence the thoughts and actions of other people.” This obviously confuses power and authority, the former entailing force, intimidation, or some other means of compulsion, the latter suggesting influence based on social or professional status, formal position, knowledge, expertise, experience, or simply inspirational personality. Zaleznik’s definition excludes leaders like Socrates, Gandhi, and Francis of Assisi. Peter Drucker showed that even management gurus are subject to human fallibility when he said;

The only definition of a leader is someone who has followers.

Ivan the Terrible had followers, Al Capone had followers, and Jim Jones had followers, but if what they offered was leadership, then leadership is surely not something we should want to cultivate.

Drucker made matters worse by holding that Hitler, Stalin, and Mao were the only great leaders of the 20th century. They weren’t leaders at all. It’s not that their successes were transitory – great leaders do not always succeed. It is rather that the people who followed them were coerced or conned or corrupted into going along with what is plainly inimical to human flourishing. Tyranny is not good for anybody, and as Alexander Solzhenitsyn so eloquently pointed out, violence and the lie are inextricably entwined.

If leadership is not based on truth, it ceases to be leadership; the opposite of lead is mislead, or deceive. Hitler, Stalin, and Mao were misleaders, as were their countless petty imitators, like Amin, Pol Pot, and Saddam. And of course, misleadership is seen in many different guises, in the bad parent, in the ideological teacher, in the bullying boss, in the corrupt corporation. In fact, misleadership is the scourge of postmodern society, and all because the Nominalist revolution made it easier not just to lie, but also to fool oneself.

Is there a way out of this semantic swamp? Well, what happens if we apply Aristotle’s Four Causes to leadership? The formal cause of leadership, that is, the meaning of the concept, is inspiring mutual commitment and support in others. The material cause of leadership, i.e. what it is made of, is human virtue – wisdom, justice, courage, and self-control. The efficient cause of leadership is human reason and free will, and the final cause of leadership is the good of all. In the light of this analysis, we see how the reality defines itself:

Leadership inspires people to be the best they can be in working together for the good of all.

Imagine the positive transformations that would happen immediately if leaders – in the home, workplace, community, and government – committed themselves to embodying that definition. While that, of course, is highly unlikely to happen anytime soon, should it not be the firm resolve of everyone who sincerely wants to build a better world to make leadership as it defines itself a living reality in their own lives, transforming their office, factory, practice, or store, and their community, nurturing hope amid the debris of misleadership.


Andre van Heerden
Andre van Heerden
ANDRE heads the corporate leadership program The Power of Integrity, and is the author of three books on leadership, Leaders and Misleaders, An Educational Bridge for Leaders, and Leading Like You Mean It. He has unique qualifications for addressing the leadership crisis. Since studying law at Rhodes University, he has been a history teacher, a deputy headmaster, a soldier, a refugee, an advertising writer, a creative director, an account director on multinational brands, a marketing consultant, and a leadership educator. He has worked in all business categories on blue-chip brands like Toyota, Ford, Jaguar, Canon, American Express, S C Johnson, Kimberley Clark, and John Deere, while leadership coaching has seen him help leaders and aspirant leaders in Real Estate, Retail, the Science Sector, Local Government, Education, Food Safety, Banking, and many other areas.

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  1. An interesting analysis of leadership definitions. While I like the one offered, I find that the lack of including the WHAT shortchanges leadership. While it should inspire the question arises whether there was wisdom in selecting what to inspire others to do.