What is Leadership? You’ll know it when you feel it.

Dr. Donna L. Roberts


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Artists employ the techniques of using of negative space to illustrate that often the sharpest definition of something arises from consideration of what it is not. Like the space in between the shadows, leadership is an enigmatic concept that eludes precise definition but nonetheless carries significant impact on its surroundings. Often, attempts to precisely define it yield flat depictions which fail to capture its true essence. Likewise, and understanding of what quality leadership is not can hone the definition of what it is.

Throughout history, individuals have attempted to capture the formula for what constitutes a great leader. Niccolo Machiavelli, a famous Italian political philosopher and statesman once wrote, “it is safer to be feared than loved” (1998, p. 17) as the basis of his philosophy of leadership. Machiavelli believed that any means, however unscrupulous, should be used by a leader to maintain authority and control. This notion of leadership as allegiance by intimidation and obligatory regulation of the actions and behaviors of another person or group of people is not without its supporters. After all, many of its proponents can point to numerous occasions where its employment has been successful, at least in terms of their particular measure of success. However, this perspective lacks the essential substance that constitutes genuine leadership, and in the end reflects just the limited concept of control.

The dictionary defines leadership as, “the position, function of or the ability to go before in order to show the way” (Stein, 1984, p. 761) while it refers to control as, “the act or power of exercising restraint, direction, domination or command over” (p. 293). Clearly leadership involves something beyond control. Furthermore, control, particularly when used in an exploitive and abusive manner, serves to more accurately define what leadership is not.

The literature on leadership attempts to capture the essence of the indefinable aspect which separates the management or control of people from true leadership with the concept of synergy. Synergy has been referred to as “the magic that happens when one plus one equals three or the result of two or more people producing together more than the sum of what they could produce separately” (Covey, 1989, p.270). It is my philosophy that synergy and the ability to inspire others to perform synergistically is the missing link between rigid, dysfunctional control and dynamic, effective leadership. It represents not simply learned tactics and techniques of management principles but embodies the system of vital energy and relationships.


Photo by Riccardo Annandale on Unsplash

Comparatively speaking, it is much easier to forcibly control a person or a group of people than to effectively forge the way, set the example and inspire others to follow. Especially if given the system of structure and authority whereby one controls the distribution of resources and necessities and/or the enactment of punishment and deprivation, mere compliance, whether willing or begrudged, follows rather naturally. It does not require a particular high level of skill to be feared rather than loved, only a system which supports that hierarchy and division of power. To truly lead, however, one must possess a variety of skills as well as a deep sense of integrity and a belief in and commitment to the power of collective and cooperative performance. The skills, perhaps, can be learned. The rest exist as some combination of one’s inherent disposition and the wisdom gained from experience.

The task of “going before in order to show the way” represents a daunting and formidable task as humans are poised at the rapidly changing brink of a brave new world, for one does not know where the road may lead. Yet it is just times like these where true leaders are most needed. We look to them to show us what together we can become in order to face the new challenges of the future.


Covey, S. R. (1989). The seven habits of highly effective people: Powerful lessons in personal change. New York: Simon & Schuster.

Machiavelli, N. (1998). The prince, 2e. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Stein, J. (1984). The random house college dictionary. New York: Random House, Inc.

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Writer and university professor researching media psych, generational studies, addiction psychology, human and animal rights, and the intersection of art and psychology.

Canandaigua, NY

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