LGT: About Definitions and the New Definitions

Leadership's Grand Theory

Introduction About Definitions

Our last newsletter article promised a discussion on the leadership definitions grounded in leadership’s grand theory, which has the support of empirical and scientific evidence. The leadership definitions are descriptive, prescriptive, predictive, and preventative. The intent of this newsletter article is to begin an informative discussion to promote understanding. The emerged definitions for leadership, to the degree possible, identify and explain the nature and basis of essential qualities for leaders and leadership that makes the phenomenon distinctive from other practices and or phenomena (e.g., influence, management, headship, presidential authority, and other actions stemming from other positions). When definitions define a term, one can learn far more from them than the basics.

Often enough, a reason people look to dictionaries is to define unfamiliar words/terms. A basic function of a dictionary is to define and or describe terms/words. According to one dictionary, define means:

1. to state precisely the meaning of (words, terms, etc[.])[,] 2. to describe the

nature, properties, or essential qualities of[,] 3. to determine the boundary or

extent of[,] 4. To delineate the form or outline of . . . 5. to fix with precision;

specify . . .. (Collins, 2023)

In an Inc. interview by James Ledbetter with Tony Robbins, a life and business strategist, the interviewer asked for a definition of leadership. He responded in a way that communicated the little help dictionaries provide for the terms leader and leadership. Before providing his insight, Tony mentioned a dictionary definition for a leader as “one who leads” and then both laughed about the helpfulness. There was no mention of a dictionary definition for leadership. He went on to state, “I believe that leadership is really a skill of influence. We will discuss this point later in the article. Tony stated after further questioning, “the chokehold on the growth of any business is always the psychology and the skillset of a leader . . . it’s 80% psychology and 20% mechanics . . ..” “I don’t think of leadership as a position, I see it as a skill.” “Other people don’t have to follow you to be a leader . . .. I think to be able to influence the thoughts, the feelings, the emotions, and actions of another human being, that’s what leadership is . . ..” When he mentioned psychology and a few other elements of life, Tony gets closer to leadership than most others who called themselves experts before heading into an amalgamation of leadership, entrepreneurship, management, and life discussion.

Conditions in Absence of Precise Definition

The question asked and example about definition conveys the state and search for understanding of leadership. It has not been clear, contributing to what we see in the world and workplaces for the past decades. We see low confidence and trust in the polls and multiple crises in the world. According to a joint survey by the Milken Institute and The Harris Poll, 63% of the survey’s participants held the opinion that “their leaders are out of touch with the rest of the country”(Milken Institute, 2020). The Odgers Berndtson Leadership Confidence Index 2020 reveals, “that across the world, only 15% of executives are actually confident in their leaders to deliver” (Berndtson, 2020). The world is experiencing multiple human-made crises. So, what is the problem?


First, leadership lacked a central theory that applied to leadership in any context. We now have leadership’s grand theory, the long-sought-after theory by a generation of scholars. Then without a general theory but enough mid-range and local theories, nominal leadership became what people saw or thought in a microcosm, largely anecdotal, and exacerbated by increasing definitions in academia contributed to the obfuscation. What is commonly seen and understood in the world is nominal leadership at best. However, we have cases that stand out where some of the essences of leadership can be understood (e.g., King Sejong, Abraham Lincoln, Mahatma Gandhi, Mother Teresa, Martin Luther King Jr., and a few others). These are not perfect, as no human is perfect. However, their actions led to positive impacts on the lives and livelihoods of people.

There are successful CEOs, executives, and other people in positions who attain goals, but it does not necessarily mean there is a practice of leadership. If a leadership practice did not exist, the practitioner or organization has little idea of what it could have achieved – its real potential or possibility. Had those in global positions practiced leadership in 2004, we could have avoided the current pandemic. We are making it through with over 6 million deaths, with an estimated 11 trillion in costs and 24 trillion in lost output, according to the International Monetary Fund (IMF).

The current definitions gave no thought or consideration for the conditions of the people following or being influenced. In research, scientists are cautious about making causal claims. Some understand latent variables exist or other factors at work not seen with the eye. If one called a leader has people around them giving the appearance of followers, it may not be the case. In militaries, there are many nominal leaders and fewer leaders. Often enough, rules are followed and not necessarily the one called leader. Too many do only the bare minimum to avoid penalty. Have you ever observed what people do in building lobbies when it is time for retreat? In one military force, some officers resourced to provide quality food for its soldiers instead facilitated the delivery of poor-quality food and pocketed the proceeds. The problem of corruption was not only present in the military but elsewhere in the government. You may remember what occurred at the prison in Abu Ghraib. In an investigation report of the matter, mentioning of (a) leadership failures, (b) ineffective leadership, (c) lack of leadership, (d) poor leadership, and (e) absence of leadership are throughout the document. Understand, although one may have command, authority, or responsibility over many; however, the related people hold various dispositions as they appear to follow.

New Definitions

Definitions are important for the sense-making, but all too often for leadership, they reflect the usage of the term in society/context and do not (a) state or set forth the meaning; (b) explain or identify the nature or essential qualities of; (c) fix or lay down clearly and definitely; specify distinctly; (d) define responsibilities. To date, we have not found such definitions associated with leadership. Merriam-Webster states that “[i]f we define a word it does not mean that we have approved or sanctioned it.”

The new definitions related to leadership based on leadership’s grand theory, science, and empirical evidence are shown in the Table below.

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A leader is one who practices leadership. Leadership is a complex multiple-triadic relational practice of right-influence and or right-inspiration toward purposes and transcendence. According to the nature of the craft of carpentry, one who practices the craft is fittingly called a carpenter. It is evident in the work or practice of the practitioner. The fact this logic has not held for leadership in the past contributes to its current state. Some call heads of groups of people who conspire to murder others, a leader. In one infamous case, the mass murderer called himself a leader. Such terms, descriptions, and acts defy the nature of leadership then, and more so today because of leadership’s grand theory. When the multi-triadic relational dimensions are not functional, there is degradation, harm, and eventual failure. The same was the result for everyone who called themselves a leader and held a practice of wrong influence.

Such influence and leadership are now paradoxes. The more appropriate descriptors such as a murdering head of state, general, party head, or another. There are terms like dark being associated with leadership. The same makes allowance for disturbing practices while opening positions and opportunities to the worst. What do you think? A president is a president with presidential duties, power, and likewise, the chief executive officer (CEO), manager, and supervisor. These positions do not necessarily practice leadership because they are responsible and accountable for people, plans, and or programs.

The fact that people are in proximity to those in position does not make the one in the position a leader. Managers manage and supervisors supervise with a leadership practice sometimes present. In many cases, personnel are assigned to a position and do not have the choice of choosing the person they report to or the one that exercises responsibility and accountability in the organization. However, right-influence and inspiration aligning with the will of the influenced can occur in such a context – when there is a practice of leadership. Therefore, the leader should be determined by the practice of leadership.

Complex Multi-triadic Relationship

In leadership, the leader is involved in a complex multi-triadic relational practice that few recognized until recently. Over 93 percent of leadership theories explicitly overlook outputs of the critical dimension and its attributes, and thus there is no emphasis on development. A dimension called the conscience can become non-functional amidst the degradation, harm, and failure described earlier. The non-functioning or underdeveloped state is a critical factor in the multiple human-made crises the world currently experiences. If not developed and not understood, the same is overlooked and can contribute to the worst in human conduct and outcomes among those influenced in a context. In the best-trained organizations, the deficit contributes to a crisis waiting to happen as it did since 2020 (e.g., COVID-19, the fall of the Afghan government, and too many others).

The leader that practices leadership, has begun to develop a conscience wittingly or unwittingly. When it functions well in the practice, there is alignment, resonating with those who are influenced and or inspired, sometimes called followers. The inner relationship of the conscience to one’s cognition relates to the realized conduct. The well-developed conscience suggests the right influence, then cognitively intended and seen in the conduct of the leader. An underdeveloped conscience contributes to cognition with behavior determined by the probability of punishment or avoidance. If one determines punishment is avoidable, the worst desired or imagined conduct can result. Conscience could be developed and functional in the leader, those influenced, and within the community.

Humans have innate needs, and the leader based on the context and purpose, well-considers one or more of the needs. Thus, the leader has the greatest potential to influence people. It was psychologist Abraham Maslow that set forth a theory of human needs. Influence premised on basic needs is in the realm of psychology mentioned by Tony in the interview. It was James MacGregor Burns, who put forth one of the greatest utterances about leadership. The leadership scholar also admitted he did have the background to take it further. He assembled a known list of scholars in a quest to find a grand theory for leadership. Input from the field of psychology was among the contributions of those gathered.

 A 3-year study examined those called leaders across six of seven continents, confirming Burn’s assertion with the support of over two thousand years of literature. The conscience of humans is the common factor underpinning the assertion and the research findings. A latent variable tragically amidst 98 percent of global leadership failures, was an underdeveloped conscience. During the latest International Leadership Association Global Conference, a discussion surfaced in response to a question from a member of one of the largest organizations in the world. The same organization is the best-funded with an imperative to develop leaders. The answer to the question was later classified as one of the gems emerging from the many presentations at the global venue. See Figure 1.


International Leadership Conference Wrap up

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Our education system often enough, focuses solely on cognitive development and skills (hard skills) to get learners out to the workforce to contribute to industrialization and or an economy. Please understand this: The world has witnessed some of the most skillful, richest, and powerful people experience harm, degradation, and failure due to a specific deficit.

At least one Harvard professor believes, as I do, concerning emphasis on more than cognitive skills, sometimes called hard skills. Some of his peers hold it is not their responsibility to focus on anything more than the lesson plan or subject matter. The peers do not understand social learning to know teaching takes place outside the scope of the lesson plan, while lecturing and being present. The same peers do not appear to comprehend how one of the most knowledgeable, experienced, and well-resourced accounting firms in the world, failed and was associated with infamous bankruptcies during a financial crisis. There is a plan to discuss in a future article or during the LGT course how little or no skill can result in the best leadership.

The relational practice continues into the context that has a community, constructions, and culture. Understanding social learning and human needs, the conduct of the one called a leader in the past could have degrading and harmful effects on the community, its constructions, and enacted culture. See Figure 2.

Figure 2

Multi-triadic Relational Model

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Right-Influence and or Right-Inspiration

The context raises the point of willing influence. Some may seem to go along, but maybe purely for an oath taken or to help uphold a constitution, with little to no inspiration from the one called the leader. Others may follow, only fearing the penalty one may face for noncompliance. In organizations, some do so because doing so provides an income until relocated elsewhere in the workforce. You may be familiar with a workplace attitude/disposition called intention to quit. How many of you worked or are working in organizations where the one classified as a leader is not inspirational and does not positively influence the workforce or personnel? Putting the same another way, how many of you do not appreciate the professionalism, attitude, or behavior of the one who has authority and or responsibility over and for you, for professional reasons?  

In some countries, there is a profession that often operates at night. However, in a particular country, some individuals seem like followers who line up in the street waiting for a professional in a profession that is illegal in other countries. Understand this profession has no leaders who practice leadership. Clearly, those in the line are influenced or responding to internal and external factors. If the desired professional is unavailable, another is sometimes selected. Children influence parents in many ways; would you call the influence of a young child or an infant leadership? Husbands and wives influence each other often enough, having to do with their own personal wants and or needs. Is this leadership?  In some situations, we find followers inspired by a method, style, mannerism, approach, philosophy, and other elements of interest worth emulation, but never meet the one who inspires or influences (e.g., Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. with Mahatma Gandhi). There are instances where one is inspired and or influenced by one factor and no other factors displayed by the one called the leader. The science and empirical evidence show wrong influence brings degradation and harm to communities, workplaces, and people.

Transcendence and Purpose

People have needs, physiological, safety, and security, love and belonging, self-esteem, self-actualization, or the desire to become the best they can be (Maslow, 1943). Most of the stated needs, parallel other motivational theories. The order for attaining needs is not fixed. Humans can excel, exceed normal limits, and attain self-fulfillment or self-actualization when there is an alignment with one’s purpose(s). When we consider people being 99.9 percent alike at the gene level, and the .1 percent amounting to billions of cells associated with distinctiveness, each person has potential and purpose in life. Leadership premised on leadership’s grand theory facilitates people reaching their full potential.

These days you may hear a nice sounding saying, that it is not about the leader being the best, but making people be their best. The fact is, the leader by attaining the best possible puts forth a model that resonates with the needs described above. It is sometimes called the right example. The same contributes to reflection and potential duplication or emulation. Social learning theory can help explain this further. If the leader is not reaching for the best, how does a leader influence or inspire others to be their best? The leader knows how to attain the best while influencing and inspiring others – striking the right balance. The leader, as a human striving to attain the best, does not take away from those rightly-influenced or inspired to be their best. However, in a context where nominal leaders exist, too often the needs of people are sacrificed for the seeming success, selfish and strange purposes of those called leaders. 

There are certainly impediments to people attaining their best, often enough in organizational contexts, it is the nominal leader – leader in name only. People somewhere along the path in life, experience a deficit of basic needs, and in particular, the lack of one need facilitates the forming of neuroses. The formation of neuroses is on the rise around the world. Consider the exponential increase in the use of the related hotline, in supposedly one of the most advanced nations.

Leadership, premised on the right influence, or the right inspiration is needed at every level of society, thus setting forth a purpose. The term and dimension of purpose give the leader and those influenced a reason for the leadership and facilitate the sense-making of any effort. Purpose encompasses vision, goals, and objectives. The right influence and or right inspiration frames the transcendence and purposes. Reasonable people can see the purposes of Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr., and Mother Teresa; the same purposes resonate with people and align with human needs. When there are purposes easily and rightly accomplished individually, there is no need for leadership in such instances. Whereas others called leaders such as Adolf Hitler, Charles Taylor, Slobodan Milošević, Jim Jones, and other former presidents, governors, and heads of organizations who are and will be noted in history for the degradation and harm inflicted. When we consider the purposes or visions of the latter, we see a vision not underpinned by the right-influence and or right inspiration causes degradation, harm, and eventual failure of the nominal leadership practice. The degradation began inside the one called leader, processed cognitively, and then appeared in the conduct.

Understand, any living human called a leader, who does not hold the practice of right-influence and or right-inspiration, sets a trap and snares for themselves. The same called leader becomes subject to neuroses, the law, their opposition, and the reaction of the people (e.g., suicide, war criminals, ousting from position, or the revolt of the people). In the workplace there is the intention to quit, performance below potential, withdrawal cognition, perceived stress, counterproductive workplace behaviors, mistreatment, violence, turnover, and toxic culture. The moment the conduct deviates from descriptive, prescriptive, preventative, and predictive properties of leadership’s new definition, they begin a walk towards failure due to the relative science, principles, and empirical evidence associated with leadership’s grand theory.


Leadership’s definition tells us the “what” about the phenomenon: “a multi-triadic relational practice.” It captures all the relevant relationships. The prescription tells us how it works: “of right-influence and or right-inspiration.” Due to the definition, we can see where/when it works: “towards transcendence and or purposes.” We also know who the leader is: one who practices leadership. If the practice is not leadership, it is another phenomenon not to be conflated with leadership (e.g., dictatorship, authoritarianism, deception, coercion, management, or others). Practice in accordance with the descriptive/prescriptive definitions, predicts the best outcomes possible while preventing degradation, harm, and failure. Our next newsletter article will discuss the recently emerged leadership-behavioral formula. Learning from just the definitions informs the practice before one enters formal leadership development training. Make sure to subscribe to receive notification of the next newsletter article when published.

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