exceptional leadership

This Is What Truly Exceptional Leadership Is All About

The quest to define exceptional leadership obsesses many people, and the definitions vary not only in content, but in context. I have sipped many cups of coffee and ran countless miles pondering this complex topic. And like many, I have devoted my life and profession to understanding the elusive concept of leadership. It was in this crusade that I experienced a resounding “Aha moment”; one of those rare flashes of sudden realization, inspiration, insight, recognition and comprehension.

As we follow and lead, write and publish, contemplate and grow, our desire is simply to better understand the significant impact, both positive and negative, leaders have on the lives and careers of organizations and individuals.

Many of us lay the foundation of our understanding with the Business Dictionary, which defines leadership as “The act of inspiring subordinates to perform and engage in achieving a goal.” But this is not enough. We desire leadership enlightenment. Enlightenment will allow us not only to understand the exceptional leadership universe, but also to improve our own condition. How do we elevate a field of knowledge which has existed as long as mankind?

The answer lies in the same simple principle which enables success in everything we do: teamwork! My epiphany erupted from the fact that often the thoughts and articles I devote my time to reading spark new ideas and avenues of research. Each of you make me a better leader as I contemplate your writings, published thoughts, notes and comments. And it is my hope I do the same for you. Jim Rohn declared, “You are the average of the five people you spend the most time with.” My friendships and relationships are based on this declaration. And each of you, many without even being aware, has mentored me in some significant way.

As you think about this, ask yourself…

If I am the average of the five people closest to me, are they leaders? Do they help me become a better leader? And, on the flip side, am I also one of somebody else’s five? When I began to think of influence this way, I began thinking seriously about being one of someone’s five. This is my challenge to you, to think seriously about what it means to be one of someone’s five.

So, with this basis of our discussion, I spent the last six months asking many world-renowned leadership experts to join me, to combine efforts and mentor in mass. The ember to spark this discussion was a simple question, “What is Leadership?” The responses, the discussions, and the connections were overwhelming and awe-inspiring.

It is with pride, I offer these 36 answers to a complex question, from those who inspire me to pursue exceptional leadership.

What is Leadership?


Leadership is the capacity to translate vision into reality.” – Warren Bennis


“A leader is one who knows the way, goes the way, and shows the way.” – John C. Maxwell


“Leadership is the skill of influencing people to action with character that inspires confidence and excellence.” – Jim Hunter


“Leadership is more than just a title or position; in its truest form, it refers to an innate drive to rally people around a common vision or shared purpose. Something that creates value both for those involved in transforming that idea into reality, as well as for those who stand to benefit from the collective efforts of those who made it happen. That’s why for me, leadership is never about the person, but about how we inspire the best in those we have the responsibility to lead.” – Tanveer Naseer


“A leader inspires others by modeling respect, bringing out the best in each person, holding high standards, and influencing outcomes and direction. A leader generates excitement about the organization’s vision, mission, and goals and the role each member plays.” – Margy Bresslour


“Leadership is envisioning a better place and inspiring others to make the necessary sacrifices to go there.” – John Bell


“The capacity and the will to rally men and women to a common purpose and the character which inspires confidence.” – General Montgomery


“Effective leadership is not about making speeches or being liked; leadership is defined by results not attributes.” – Peter Drucker

“A leader is someone who inspires us to achieve our highest aspirations. We all know that we can dream more, be more, and do more. Leaders inspire us to take action.” – Dan Forbes


“Leadership is influence.” – John C. Maxwell


“A leader inspires others, appreciates others, and lives their own life to be an example of what right looks like.” – Doug VanWiggeren


“Where there is no vision, the people perish.” – Proverbs 29:18


“Leadership is lifting a person’s vision to high sights; the raising of a person’s performance to a higher standard; the building of a personality beyond its normal limitations.” – Peter Drucker


“Leadership is influencing others by your character, humility and example. It is recognizable when others follow in word and deed without obligation or coercion.” – Sonny Newman


“Control is a mirage. The most effective leaders right now – men and women – are those who embrace traits once considered feminine: Empathy. Vulnerability. Humility. Inclusiveness. Generosity. Balance. Patience.” – Leigh Buchanan


“When asked to define the ideal leader, many would emphasize traits such as intelligence, toughness, determination, and vision, the qualities traditionally associated with leadership. Such skills and smarts are necessary but insufficient qualities for the leader. Often left off the list are softer, more personal qualities, but they are also essential. Although a certain degree of analytical and technical skill is a minimum requirement for success, studies indicate that emotional intelligence may be the key attribute that distinguishes outstanding performers from those who are merely adequate.” – Daniel Goleman


“Before you are a leader, success is all about growing yourself. When you become a leader, success is all about growing others.” – Jack Welch


“Leaders are stewards. They mindfully navigate the responsibility to improve the quality of life of those entrusted to their care.” – Shawn Murphy


“Great leaders are like great orchestra conductors…bringing different instruments together to make beautiful music.” – Eileen McDargh


“The key to successful leadership today is influence, not authority.” –  Kenneth Blanchard


“The most effective form of leadership is supportive. It is collaborative. It is never assigning a task, role or function to another that we ourselves would not be willing to perform. For all practical purposes, leading well is as simple as remembering to remain others-centered instead of self-centered.” – John Michel


Leadership is a process of social influence, which maximizes the efforts of others, toward the achievement of a goal.”– Kevin Kruse


“When leaders make this their practice, they are better able to deal with whatever situations arise. And when leaders ask themselves what we call The Central Question:  “What choice can I make and action can I take, in this moment, to create the greatest net value?” they are much more likely to apply their best thinking before they react.” – Harvey Schoof


“In the Social Age, a leader is a connector, active listener and collaborator. Every leader today serves as “Chief Facilitation Officer” – their job is to inspire action by getting the right people in the right room at the right time. – Mark Babbitt


“Leadership is cultivating a shared, aspirational purpose and empowering everyone in the organization to contribute to it.” – Kristof De Wolf


“Too many people think leadership is about control. In fact, great leaders inspire and then get out of the way. Leadership is about influence, guidance, and support, not control.” – Meghan Biro


“A leader may be at the front of the line, showing the way. They may also, however, be in the middle of the crowd letting everyone know what’s ahead or at the back of the group, making sure no one is left behind.” – Paula Kiger


“Real leaders are activist leaders, As magnets for value they understand that driving profitable initiatives alone is not enough. Activist leaders create conditions that bring about meaning, purpose and transformational change in people, processes and outcomes.” – Jay Steven Levin


“Effective leadership is about creating and maintaining a powerful, positive, productive work culture. When everyone – team members, team leaders, suppliers, even customers – are treated with trust, respect, and dignity in every interaction, that’s effective leadership.” – Chris Edmonds


“Men make history and not the other way around. In periods where there is no leadership, society stands still. Progress occurs when courageous, skillful leaders seize the opportunity to change things for the better.” – Harry S. Truman


“As we look ahead into the next century, leaders will be those who empower others.” – Bill Gates


“The art of leadership is saying no, not saying yes. It is very easy to say yes.” – Tony Blair


“The best leaders are not interested in who is right, but what is right. They not only embrace dissenting opinions, but they seek them out at every opportunity. Real leaders are just as at ease when unlearning as they are when learning. And perhaps most importantly, they never pass up an opportunity discuss, converse, dialog, or debate. They know that their leadership is only as good as their ability to engage, listen, discern and to act.” – Mike Myatt


“Leadership is best captured in the relationship parents have with their children. It is our responsibility to provide the motivation to try harder, correction when necessary, support always, and if we do it right, their success lives on with less and less input from us.”  – Joel Neeb


“The difference between great generals and mediocre ones may be attributed to the zeal great generals have been able to inspire in their men. Some excellent generals have been master strategists, and have won wars on this strength alone. Greatness, however, by very definition implies a great and expanded view. It transcends intelligence and merely technical competence. It implies an ability to see the lesser in relation to the greater; the immediate in relation to the long term; the need for victory in relation to the needs that will arise once victory has been achieved.” – Donald Walters


Being either an efficient leader or an effective leader may make you a “good” leader, but being a dynamic, innovative leader who can balance focus in each of these areas to be efficiently effective as a leader and as an organization will define greatness. Dynamic leaders are characterized by focused energy, effective action and benevolent compassion. The true measure of a leader is not just measured by success of their organization, but by the measure of leaders they influence and develop to follow in their footsteps.

The purpose of this effort was not to resolve the eternal question of, “What is leadership?” It was meant to spark thought, discussion and evolution of the concept. The definition of leadership should never be definitive and stagnant. It must continually evolve to the task at hand, with our ultimate task remaining to build the next generation of leaders.



Chris R. Stricklin is a combat-proven leader, mentor and coach integrating the fields of dynamic followership, negotiations, leadership, positive change, public relations, public speaking and complex organizational change. His unique experience as a U.S.A.F. Thunderbird coupled with Pentagon-level management of critical Air Force resources valued at $840B, multiple N.A.T.O. assignments, White House and DARPA fellowships, and command-experience in the United States Air Force allow his unique synthesis of speaking, following, leading, management, negotiations, continuous improvement and positive change. Chris is also a Certified Manager with degrees in Economics, Financial Planning, Strategic Studies and Operational Art and Science. He authored a negotiation primer which was subsequently published and adopted as required Air Force Pentagon new action officer orientation. He and his wife, Terri, have 4 children.

  • paulakiger

    Great compilation thanks so much for including me.

  • Great compilation of all the reasons why leadership development has failed for lo these many years to have any positive long term impact. Or why engagement efforts have failed to significantly improve engagement. All the above offerings are goals or what leadership accomplishes, not what leadership actually is. Why so wrong? Because of studying leaders and NOT what it is that followers follow. Followers follow value standards transmitted to them by leaders. Visions and other dictated from above in the “the top knows best” transmit standards of disrespect and disregard for employees. Employees who are followers then use those standards as how to treat their work, their customers, each other, and their bosses. Big surprise!!!

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