What is Leadership, and How is Influence the Answer?

By Leaders.com Editorial Staff

Leadership—it’s something every organization needs for success, but something many businesses get wrong. In fact, statistics show companies desperately need to focus on developing leaders. For example, a survey conducted by Deloitte found that “leadership is the number one talent issue facing organizations around the world.”

While 86 percent of respondents ranked leadership as an “urgent” or “important,” only five percent of businesses said they were “excellent” at developing millennial leaders. So, what is leadership, and how can business owners practice, model, and teach it to their teams?

In this article, you’ll learn:

  • The definition of leadership
  • Three major ‘don’ts’ of leading a team
  • Top strategies for gaining influence 
  • A shortlist of today’s best leadership teachers to follow 
Table of Contents
  1. What is Leadership?
  2. What Leadership Is Not
  3. How to Start Growing Influence as a Leader
  4. Top 3 Leaders to Follow for Growing Leadership Traits

What is Leadership?

Leadership Definition

The definition of leadership is simple: It’s the practice of positive influence. But this presents another question—what is influence? Combining definitions from Oxford Languages and Merriam-Webster, influence is “the capacity to have an effect on the character, development, or behavior of someone or something,” but without using “apparent exertion of force or direct exercise of command.” 

Dwight D. Eisenhower gives a more straightforward definition of leadership and its relation to influencing: “Leadership is the art of getting someone else to do something you want done because he wants to do it.”

What Leadership Is Not

Sometimes knowing what something isn’t sheds more light on what it is. While the leadership definition above is a good starting point for understanding its meaning, it doesn’t explain the common pitfalls many make when guiding their teams. 

Leadership is Not Commanding Authority

As mentioned in the leadership definition, being a leader is practicing the art of influence. CEOs don’t gain followers because they’re at the top of the organizational food chain. Customers’ and employees’ respect, admiration and loyalty are earned based on how well a person serves them. 

Great leaders start creating influence by clearly communicating, promoting and working toward achieving a just cause. They call people to join them in doing good by accomplishing the organization’s mission. 

Words aren’t enough, though. The most influential leaders act on fulfilling their purpose. They’re always on the frontlines ensuring they serve as the living example of their organization’s values. For example, the CEO of Chick-fil-A still directly interacts with the franchise’s customers, takes out the trash at restaurants and wears a humble name badge: Dan Cathy, Customer Service, In Training. This type of business owner demonstrates leadership and teaches it to their team. Not only does this model help leaders gain influence, but it also multiplies more ethical, purpose-driven leaders throughout the company. It goes to show that leadership is a cyclical, infinitely influential process.

Leadership is Not Management

Confusing leading with managing is another big mistake made in business. While the two aren’t mutually exclusive, they serve entirely different purposes. As educator and management consultant Peter Druker explains, “Management is doing things right; leadership is doing the right things.” 

What he means is leaders are responsible for casting a vision of a better future, strategizing on the organization’s direction and motivating their teams to achieve the company’s overarching objective. On the other hand, managers don’t need to be sources of inspiration. Their function is ensuring the leader’s vision comes to fruition. They do this by training employees, planning, directing and delegating out work and monitoring the success of these initiatives. 

The Differences Between Leading and Managing

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Leadership is Not One Size Fits All

In total, there are seven leadership styles, and this doesn’t even include leadership models such as Situational Leadership®. Studying leadership theory is important because it helps entrepreneurs and executives learn how to be flexible and adaptable when guiding others. As emotional intelligence expert Daniel Goleman says: “The best leaders don’t know just one style of leadership—they’re skilled at several, and have the flexibility to switch between styles as the circumstances dictate.”

How to Start Growing Influence as a Leader

To summarize, leadership is not dictating authority, managing or guiding individuals exactly the same. Instead, it is realizing how to positively influence each person on the team toward achieving the company’s collective vision. But how do business owners grow their influence among customers, clients and employees? 


Leaders grow influence by being the person team members depend on for clarity and guidance. However, influence dwindles when leaders aren’t strategic thinkers because no one wants to follow a person who appears unconfident, frustrated and lost. People want to know their leaders have a plan for success. 

This is why taking time for strategic planning as a business owner is important for growing credibility and trust. When CEOs create plans that produce positive results, they increase their influence as reliable leaders. 

Serve Others

Servant leadership is the best leadership style for maximizing a person’s positive influence. For example, servant leaders eliminate self-interested behaviors, instead of serving the needs of their employees, customers, clients and community. In essence, there’s always asking themselves, “How can I provide value?” 

Additionally, this type of leader is specifically focused on multiplying leaders at all levels in the organization. By demonstrating company values, being a mentor and offering leadership and development opportunities, they increase their influence organically by putting those around them first. 

Inspire and Motivate

Growing people into their full potential through inspiration and motivation is a critical leadership trait. Dale Carnegie, famed author of How to Win Friends and Influence People advises, “Let us praise even the slightest improvement that inspires the other person to keep on improving . . . I can look back on my own life and see where a few words of praise have sharply changed my entire future.” 

Seeing a business owner’s vision could take years or even decades. Appreciation and recognition make employees feel acknowledged for their dedication and hard work as they achieve colossal objectives. 

Develop Emotional Intelligence 

Emotional intelligence (EI) is one of the top leadership qualities needed for growing positive influence. As scholar and leadership expert Dr. Robert K. Cooper explains, “Emotional intelligence is the ability to sense, understand, and effectively apply the power and acumen of emotions as a source of human energy, information, connection, and influence.” 

Scientifically speaking, EI is a predictor of professional success. Studies conducted by TalentSmart® found 90 percent of high performers at work have a high emotional quotient (EQ measures EI). The good news is unlike a person’s intelligence quotient (IQ), EQ can grow over time. For more information on growing your EI, start with Daniel Goleman’s Emotional Intelligence.

Devote Time to Learning and Teaching

The greatest leaders are students of leadership. They grow their influence by becoming experts in their craft. Additionally, they develop more leaders by sharing what they’ve learned with others. As Historian Henry Adams once said, “A teacher affects eternity; he can never tell where his influence stops.” 

Learning leaders seek wise counsel from mentors, make education a top priority and put what they learn into action. In the age of information, there’s plenty of phenomenal educational materials designed for helping leaders do this. Whether reading a book by today’s top leadership experts, listening to a leadership podcast or attending conferences, it’s impossible to run out of resources for growing leadership qualities. 

Top 3 Leaders to Follow for Growing Leadership Traits

As mentioned above, building upon the experience and knowledge of those who’ve come become you is a part of understanding leadership. One of the best ways of doing this is by studying today’s top leadership experts. The three people listed below help develop a better picture of what it means to lead.

John C. Maxwell, Founder of The John Maxwell Company

Leadership is not about titles, positions, or flowcharts. It is about one life influencing another.”

John Maxwell is one of the most influential business owners and leadership experts of all time. He is a crucial person to study for those exploring what leadership means. Over the course of his career, Maxwell has written numerous best-sellers, including; The 21 Irrefutable Laws of Leadership, 15 Invaluable Laws of Growth and Developing the Leader Within You. Maxwell spends his time fulfilling his mission of multiplying leaders through positive influence. Through his books, podcast and leadership training programs, he’s taught millions of people the art of practicing servant leadership. As a business owner and educator, he’s taught people that being a leader is primarily about learning how to serve others. He encourages others to lead with a purpose-driven mission that makes the world a better place. 

Brené Brown, Research Professor 

I define a leader as anyone who takes responsibility for finding the potential in people and processes, and who has the courage to develop that potential.”

University of Houston professor Dr. Brené Brown gained international notoriety as a leadership expert with her TED talk, “The Power of Vulnerability.” Shortly thereafter, she released Daring Greatly, which further illustrated her message about how vulnerability transforms a person’s relationship with themselves and others. In 2018, she released Dare to Lead, which is specifically for entrepreneurs, executives, and managers. On the whole, her work helps people realize how to build a great team culture where employees feel safe to be themselves. Because of Brown, vulnerability has become recognized as one of the top leadership qualities every person in a position of influence needs for success. 

Simon Sinek, Best-Selling Author 

Being the leader means you hold the highest rank, either by earning it, good fortune or navigating internal politics. Leading, however, means that others willingly follow you—not because they have to, not because they are paid to, but because they want to.”

Like Brené Brown, Simon Sinek became one of the world’s greatest teachers on leadership thanks to his TED talk, “Start with Why: How Great Leaders Inspire Action.” It ranks as the third most popular one of all time (Brown’s is fourth). Some of his best-selling books include: Start with Why, Leaders Eat Last and The Infinite Game. Similar to the other leaders on this list, Sinek advises that leadership is an act of service, driven by purpose and positive influence. Through his books and lectures, he teaches people how to lead from a place of selflessness and inspire collective action. Today, Sinek is one of the best educators for those who are interested in building strong, trusting teams.