Leadership and meaningfulness

For many years, the prevailing view has been that leadership of people belongs only to some of us. But is this true? Read a new blog post by Zuzana Čmelíková, Mazars' Resilience and Leadership expert.

Pulitzer Prize-winning author of Leadership James MacGregor Burns said: "The crisis in leadership today lies in the mediocrity or even recklessness of a large number of men and women in power." Mediocrity, he said, is present not only in the intellectual perspective, but especially in the perspective of values.

According to Burns, we know very little about what real leadership actually means. In practice, we rarely manage to grasp its essence. In Leadership, James MacGregor Burns asks the following questions: Is leading people about inspiration? Is it about setting goals? Is it about achieving goals? Is a leader one who articulates values? Does the leader meet the needs of his or her followers? Leading people, according to J. Burns, is one of the most discussed, yet least understood phenomena.

Experts who study leadership agree that it is impossible to give a precise definition of leadership that would be valid always and everywhere, regardless of the culture and customs of different cultures and nations. "The meaning of the word leadership is determined precisely by how it is used by people in a given culture." (Ciulla). Joseph Rost collected 221 definitions of leadership that were used from the 1920s through the 1990s. As an example, we provide one definition for each decade of this period.

Overview of leadership definitions in the 20th century


Leadership is the ability to improve a leader's decision-making in relation to those he or she leads and to bring them to obedience, to respect for justice, loyalty, and cooperation.


Leadership is a process in which the activities of many are organized toward a particular direction. This direction must be directed by someone.


Leadership is the result of the ability to persuade or direct people.


The authority of a leader is spontaneously aligned and harmonized with the members of follower groups.


Leadership represents activities undertaken by one person to influence others in a certain direction.


Leadership is defined in terms of free influence (leaving to the individual consideration). This discretion refers to a leader's behaviour in which he or she can consider and weigh different situations from different positions (according to the specificity of the situation).


Despite the complexities involved in leadership, its meaning is relatively simple. To lead is to inspire others to adopt certain forms of meaningful action as determined by the leader. 


Leadership is an influencing relationship between leaders and their followers in which leaders determine real change, reflecting their common purpose.

Source: (Ciulla, 2003)


It is very interesting to see how the understanding of leadership has changed over the last century. In the 1920s, leaders imposed their will and decisions on those they led. In the 1940s, there has already been a change: they tried to persuade their followers. In the sixties they influenced them, and in the nineties it was a matter of complementing and influencing each other in order to achieve a common goal. Based on this overview, we can form a picture of how people's leadership has been understood and how it has taken its present form.

The issue of leadership must also be looked at from a cultural perspective and always be seen in the context of a given culture. The use and explanation of the term is therefore dependent on it. "The meaning of the word is determined by how people in a given culture use it and how they think about it." (Ciulla).

New definitions

In recent definitions, some shifts can be seen in the understanding of its basic nature and essence. As an example, definitions of leadership from a variety of sources are presented:

  • "Leadership is a set of identifiable practices and skills that are available to all of us, that is, not just a select few charismatic men and women. The theory of perfect people - men or women - does not apply in leading people." (Kouzes-Posner).
  • "Leadership is about relationship. It is the relationship between those who lead and those who follow." (Kouzes-Posner).

In the above definitions, the authors emphasize the role of human relationships, which, in their view, form the basic prerequisite for effective leadership. Other authors also put emphasis on interactions.

  • "True leadership involves driving and motivating employees in order to achieve the vision set by the leaders, through the mission of the organization." (Kanungo)
  • "Leadership is understood, not only as interactions between people at all levels of the organization, but also between the economic system through which people are interconnected through various forms of interactions." (Hoivik).

From the perspective of efficiency and sustainable development, it is very important to approach the promotion of employee engagement through meaningfulness. It is this topic, specifically the PERMA leadership model, which is based on modern well-being theory, that we guided you through our past webinar. If you missed it, click below to watch the recording.

Watch the replay

For many years, the prevailing view has been that the skill of leading people belongs to only some of us. This myth has persisted in part because we are so often faced with the question of whether leaders have to be born leaders or whether leading people can be learned. B. Posner and J. Kouzes answer this question wittily: "I have never met a leader who was not born. But not only leaders have to be born, but also accountants, artists, athletes, parents, zoologists, etc. We all have to be born, but what we do in our lifetime is up to us and us only.