Leadership Defined in "3" Words

There are a number of blogs and discussion posts, most notably on Harvard Business Review Group, asking "how to define leadership in one or two words" that seem to keep surfacing on a regular basis. Words such as influence, wisdom, inspiration, passion, drive, power, knowledge, credibility, energy, foresight, sensitivity, charisma, action, perseverance, uniting, and responsible are just a few of the terms that are used to define leadership (out of over 16,000 responses).

The problem is defining leadership isn't quite that simple. Leadership is a complex transformational process and therefore defining it in one or two words is also transitional. As we mature and grow, the state of our leadership abilities change based on our experiences and current situation. This means that all the terms used above and more truly describe great leadership and are fluid within us.

In "3" Words

So instead of defining leadership as specific personal traits that are needed to be successful, why don't we define leadership in action terms? This allows us to take advantage of the fluidity in personal traits to meet the differing situations we typically encounter. Personally, I use these three words to define leadership and keep focused on terms that allow for personal leadership traits to be effective:

  • Vision
  • Direction
  • Support


Your vision is really a simplistic word or two from your company's vision/mission statements that provide a singular focus for employees that is understandable within their scope of work. For most of us the vision is really customer centric (e.g., The Customer). Employees should focus their work and actions at all times to the customer.

The advantage of providing a vision is to give a kind of "rally call" to your work teams. If all employees are working in concert toward a single focus, you then will create opportunities for collaboration, communication, and teamwork. In looking at the traits above, one can see that providing a vision uses many of these leadership traits.


Providing direction doesn't mean telling others what, when, why, or how to solve a challenge. Rather it's about providing just enough information for others to be able to solve the challenge on their own.

Employees typically don't want to be told what to do. They want autonomy and direction to help when they hit a road block to accomplishing the task at hand. Providing direction allows the leader to be involved just enough to keep a tab on what's going on and who's doing what, in addition to creating a contact an opportunity to influence and inspire those receiving the direction. Again, direction provides the opportunity to use leadership traits to keep employees moving down the right path.


Developing support mechanisms is the most important aspect of leadership. Giving employees what they need to be successful is critical to both meeting the vision and motivating those performing the work.

No matter how many leadership traits you might have, if you can't support those whom you are leading, then it will be for nothing. Support mechanisms are both simple and complex. Simple support is just being there when you are needed to provide direction or listen to what is needed. Complex support is the network of resources that are available to meet the needs and requests of those performing the work. Without providing support, no leadership trait will elevate you into a position of credibility and respect.


Due to the nature and significance of leadership transformation, don't believe in just one or two traits to define yourself or your leadership style. Instead, embrace all the traits and allow them to be fluid within you as your situation or role changes. The psychological aspect of this will allow one to challenge conventional wisdom and assumptions of the "one size fits all" leadership style. Fluidity allows leaders to be adaptive and responsive within the framework of vision, direction, and support which is key to leadership success. Then again, maybe we can define leadership in one word... Art.

"Leadership is the art of getting someone else to do something you want done because he wants to do it" ~Dwight D. Eisenhower

©  Darrielle Ehrheart | March 13, 2015


Maxwell, J. (2003). Developing the leaders around you: How to help others reach their full potential. Thomas Nelson Inc.
Campbell, M., & Smith, R. (2010). High-potential talent: A view from inside the leadership pipeline. Center for creative leadership.
Effron, M., Greenslade, S., & Salob, M. (2005). Growing great leaders: Does it really matter? HR.Human Resource Planning, 28(3), 18-23.
Monarth, H. (2015, January 22). Evaluate Your Leadership Development Program. Harvard Business Review.
[i] Campbell, M., & Smith, R. (2010). High-potential talent: A view from inside the leadership pipeline. Center for creative leadership.
[ii] Campbell, M., & Smith, R. (2010). High-potential talent: A view from inside the leadership pipeline. Center for creative leadership. Like The Challenge of Finding [Keeping] Great Leaders

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