Here’s How 14 Top CEOs Define “Leadership,”​ Which One Do You Agree With?

I’ve worked with and spoken with a lot of CEOs over the years.

I don’t say that to brag, but to give context around something that I have noticed.

I always like to ask leaders I meet, a lot of questions. Mainly because I’m genuinely curious about things and I always like to learn, but also because I’m always looking for patterns and trends. I suppose this is what being an avid chess player does to you :)

There’s always was one question leaders have a harder time answering…

But first, some context.

Over the past 18 months, I had the privilege to interview some of the world’s top CEOs for my book, The Future Leader. I spoke with CEOs from companies like Best Buy, Audi, KPMG, Oracle, SAP, Verizon, MasterCard, Royal Caribbean, InterContinental Hotels Group, and dozens of others.

I was trying to understand how leadership is changing what leaders need to do in order to adapt and be successful in the new world of work. I asked these CEOs about trends, skills, mindsets, challenges, and everything and anything in between.

All the leaders gave me fantastic answers, wonderful stories, and profound insights, everything flowed very easily…until we got to THE QUESTION.

There was one question that the world’s top business leaders struggled with the most. It’s the question that made all of them pause and create a kind of awkward silence. It’s the question that made many of the CEOs say things “wow, that’s a good question,” or “nobody has ever asked me that before.”

What was the question?

“If I came from another planet and had no concept of ‘leader’ or ‘leadership,’ how would you explain it to me?”

This is where the awkward pauses started…

The problem is we don’t spend enough time thinking about this because we all assume we know what good and bad leadership is and what it looks like. We see and experience leadership all the time — when we go to the grocery store, when we show up to work, when we turn on the news or watch a movie when we play sports…it’s everywhere.

For many, trying to explain leadership is like trying to explain water to someone. We don’t do it because we all know what water is and we all know what leadership is…right?

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Consider how the following CEOs defined leadership:

“Leadership is about helping others realize their potential and inspiring them to work with you to achieve a shared vision for the future.” — Kathy Mazzarella, CEO, Graybar

“Ensuring that people have everything they need to achieve the missions of an organization. That’s it, all else is footnotes.” — Hans Vestburg, CEO, Verizon Communications

“Leadership is a combination of legitimacy, personality and management skills that make others want to follow someone’s direction.” — Pierre-André de Chalendar, CEO, Saint Gobain

“Leadership is helping people succeed, inspiring and uniting people behind a common purpose and then being accountable.” — Paul Polman, Former CEO, Unilever

“A leader focuses on both the vision of the future and the possibility and the hard realities of the present and the lessons learned of the past, a person who inspires others, someone who is a walking symbol of humility.” — Bernard Tyson, Former CEO, Kaiser Permanente

“As a leader you must trust and empower your teams. Give them a clear direction, explain the purpose of the company and give them the means to do their jobs. A leader must also empower people and help them grow and build on their strengths while practicing to improve on their blind spots.” — Isabelle Kocher, CEO, Engie

“Leadership is showing up and stepping up at a time when people need you and doing the right thing, no matter how hard it is. I remember my former boss said to me that there’s a right thing to do and there’s an easy thing to do, and very rarely is the right thing to do the easy thing to do.” — Keith Barr, CEO, InterContinental Hotels Group

“Leadership is about the ability to drive results, set the vision and share it, create an environment of success, and remove obstacles.” — Judy Marks, CEO, Otis Elevator

“A leader is someone who can think strategically, simplify the strategy so everyone in the organization can understand it and communicate that strategy simply, enthusiastically, and in a caring way.” — Ajay Banga, CEO, MasterCard

“The most basic definition of leadership is you set the destination. You come up with a strategy to get to that destination and do your best to align and supply the resources to make that happen.” — Mark Hurd, Former CEO, Oracle

“Leadership is helping believe in a better tomorrow or a better outcome than you have today.” — Marissa Mayer, Former CEO, Yahoo!

“Make setting audacious goals a fundamental belief. Do things, as John F. Kennedy famously said, “not because they are easy, because they are hard.” Leadership stands for progress, empowerment, empathy and trust. At a time of too many cynics who throw up their hands and cry, “impossible,” I employ optimism, the only free stimulus in this world.” — Bill McDermott, CEO, ServiceNow (Former CEO, SAP)

“Leadership is getting people to willingly go someplace they wouldn’t go themselves” — Tom Wilson, CEO, Allstate

“I define leadership as making a positive impact on people; employees, shareholders, customers, business partners and the public at large.” — Levent Çakiroglu, CEO, KOC Holdings

All of the CEOs I interviewed defined “leader” and “leadership” differently. Sure, there are some common themes, but the definitions themselves are unique.

The worst thing you and your organization can do is NOT have a clear definition of what leadership is and what it means to be a leader.

These definitions will dictate the leadership filters that your organization puts in place.

I’m always amazed how at a single company there can be some leaders who everyone admires, respects, and wants to work for, and at that same organization there can be other leaders who everyone hates and runs from. How can that happen?

It’s because the people who promoted them had different definitions of leadership.

If your definition is focused on profits, then those are the filters that will get created, if your definition is focused on putting people first, then those are the filters will get created.

The first and most crucial step for anyone embarking on their leadership journey is to define what this means to begin with. Your definition and concept of leadership will change over time. That’s ok, but you have to start somewhere!

What’s your definition of “leader” and “leadership?” Share below!

Leadership is changing. What are the skills and mindsets you need to master in order to lead in a post-Covid world? According to over 140 of the world’s top CEOs there are 4 mindsets and 5 skills that leaders need to master. Learn what they are and hear directly from these leaders by downloading the PDF below.

4x Best-Selling Author, Speaker, & Futurist. Founder of Exploring Leadership, Employee Experience, & The Future of Work