The Question of “Essence”

Umbrellas and parasols against the backdrop of a blue sky and clouds

The field of Leadership Studies is obscured by “experts” who claim to have discovered the “essence” of leadership. You can check this out for yourself by doing a Google search on the phrase “the essence of leadership.” I came up with 436,000 hits.

Such claims often come couched in terms that demean the use of this word by others who define it differently. This effort to monopolize the word “leadership” is misguided. It fails to understand that there is no essence to leadership.

The mistake people make is epistemological and linguistic—how we know something and how we use words to express what we think we know. One can claim that his or her definition of leadership captures its “essence,” but that doesn’t make it so. If enough people agree that a certain set of experiences should be labeled “leadership,” then they are describing leadership. The important thing is not the word you use, but the thing it describes and the consensus of a community to give that thing a label.

Words are labels we attach to something we have experienced or seen. They are not the thing itself. The word “leadership” does not have an essence—it is a tag. It’s the phenomenon that is important. We could have called it “pishredleap” or “shiperdeal” or “reshdealip.” Or how about “rukovodstvo” (Croatian), “udheheqje” (Albanian), or “guida” (Italian)?

If, in the English-speaking world, enough people use the label “leadership” to describe…

  1. the ability to influence others,
  2. the ability to mobilize people,
  3. the ability to help people achieve their goals, and
  4. the ability to visualize and communicate a better future, then…

that is leadership. There is such a thing as influence, motivation, mobilization, and visualization and if a community agrees that, for the sake of smoother communication, we will label this combination of activities and abilities “leadership,” then that’s what it is.

We can, however, refine our understanding of the phenomenon itself. But we must acknowledge to ourselves the bias from which we see and perceive the thing we call “leadership.” Most leadership literature has sought to understand it from a Western cultural perspective. This raises important questions.

For example, is this same set of phenomena present in other cultures? If so, how does it manifest itself? Is there something universal about this phenomena? Why do some cultures not even have a word for “leadership”? (This is a problem in translation that is more common than most people imagine.) If a language group has no word for “leadership,” does this mean the experience does not exist in those cultures? Is it a Western concept? All of these are great questions for future posts.

There is something “out there” we have agreed to call “leadership.” It has to do with the things I mentioned above. But to claim that one has identified the “essence” of true leadership is to misunderstand language itself. There is no “essence” in language. There is only human experience and our attempts to describe that experience through words. Some of that experience we have labeled “leadership.”

provides consulting services for churches and organizations. Contact Dr. Waddell today at gregwaddell[at] to discuss the needs of your organization.

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