Getting dramatically better results from your leadership development programming – Part II – A results-based definition of leadership

In my last blog, I described a worrisome trend in leadership development (LD) programming – confidence that these programs are providing the leadership training that organizations need is declining despite the fact that organizations have significantly increased funding for these programs in recent years. I argued that this troublesome trend was the result of LD programming that was too abstract, too complex, and too process focused and that leaders needed to have better “roadmaps” to help them make decisions about what strategies and leadership skills to apply to leadership problems.

A better definition of leadership would help

Warren Bennis  noted that in recent years, virtually all definitions of leadership focused on a familiar tripod – leaders, followers, and a common goal. In this model, leadership involved processes that leaders employed to induce followers to engage in achieving the common goal. While this model was a useful description of leadership in the past, it has serious limitations for developing leadership skills in contemporary organizational contexts because the model

  • is a bad fit for many current organizations that encourage greater collaboration between organizational levels and discourage rigid leadership hierarchies,
  • inevitably focuses on abstract processes such as influence and persuasion rather than results and outcomes,
  • and mediating behavioral processes (i.e. influencing, persuading, and inducing) have weak operational definitions.

In order to make leadership more concrete and teachable, LD programs usually build their curriculum around leadership competencies. While leadership competency models are certainly useful, they cannot be considered a substitute for a teachable model of leadership. I conceive of leadership competencies as the building blocks for effective leadership. However, a teachable model should also include strategies for how to apply the competencies in the various situations that leaders encounter.

An effective and teachable model of leadership, therefore, must have 3 components:

The purpose component has two facets: (1) the objective to be achieved (i.e., whether it is economic, political, and/or societal); and (2) the organizational level of the leader (i.e., supervisor, team leader, middle manager, or executive). For example, the strategies that are often effective for supervisors (action-focused and direct problem-solving) may be much less effective at the executive level. Establishing a clear purpose is important in determining the leadership strategies that will be most effective in achieving the leader’s objective.

Other factors involved in selecting a leadership strategy are the maturity of the team or organization[1]  and the leaders strengths and weaknesses as a leader.

I will discuss in greater detail leadership strategies that are available to leaders at all levels in a later blog.

In place of the tripod model, I suggest a definition that emphasizes results and outcomes as well as a willingness to engage or take responsibility for achieving objectives. Simply stated, leaders must first consider the context (i.e., purpose, team/organizational maturity, and personal leadership strengths and weaknesses ) in selecting a leadership strategy. The strategy selected, then, determines the leadership competencies that will be used to execute the leadership strategy.

Leadership is taking responsibility for getting things done through people.

Leaders, after all, are evaluated and compensated for achieving results. In addition, research[2] has indicated a strong positive relationship between the capabilities of leaders and the fate of organizations. By using a results-based definition of leadership, we ensure that we are focused on tangible outcomes rather than appearance (as is often the case in assessing potential for leadership).

A number of researchers at the Center for Creative Leadership[3] (CCL) have suggested the following causal path to describe how leaders can achieve their objectives. The front end of this path is the organization’s leadership culture: individual beliefs about leadership, collective leadership beliefs, and individual leadership practices. Depending upon the context, leaders take action to provide direction, create  alignment, and instill commitment. These actions, if successful, achieve the desired long-term outcomes. In organizational systems terms, leadership culture is Input; actions to achieve direction, alignment, and commitment are the Throughput; and the achievement of organizational goals is the Output.

My next blog will discuss leadership strategies that are commonly used by successful leaders to achieve the direction, alignment, and commitment that CCL research describes.

Skipton Leonard, PhD
Managing Director


[1] Hersey, P. & Blanchard, K.H. (1977). Management of organizational behavior: Utilizing human resources (3rd ed.). Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall.

[2] Kaiser, R.B., Hogan, R., & Craig, S.B. (2008). Leadership and fate of organizations. American Psychologist, 63, 2, 96-110.

[3] Drath, W.H., McCauley, C.D., Palus, C.J., Van Velsor, E., O’Connor, P.M.G., McGuire, J.B. (2008). Direction, alignment, commitment: Toward a more integrative ontology of leadership. The Leadership Quarterly, 19, 635-653.


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