The word “leadership” is notoriously difficult to define with any consensus—it means different things to different people.

For me, it means responsibility. To some of my colleagues, leadership is conditional and a reflection of who you are. My co-author, Jeff Eggers, has the Bass Handbook of Leadership on his bookshelf at home. He doesn’t carry it around because it’s about 5 pounds. Yet, for him, it acts as something of a source book for those studying leadership, and it claims that “often a two-day meeting to discuss leadership has started with a day of argument over the definition.”

A main concern with leadership has to do with how we generally define leadership, or how we think of it.

The Mythology Surrounding Leadership

Most people define leadership as a process—meaning it describes the actions and effects of the leader. Other times, people speak in causal and process terms: a person’s “leadership” style consisted of traits A, B, and C, and their “leadership” achieved results X, Y, and Z. In this popular usage, the word leadership is shorthand for what the leader does.

For years, humans have searched for the secret of leadership by studying why certain leaders achieve enviable results where others do not. People believe—wrongly—that what happened in one’s leadership instance can be replicated in another.

The True Meaning of Leadership

Our book, Leaders: Myth and Reality, offers a new definition for leadership. Namely, we argue that leadership is less a process enacted by the leader, and rather the emergent product of a system that includes leaders, followers, and their specific context. This new paradigm allows us to attribute causality to a wider array of factors. Moreover, it allows leadership to become contextual, wherein what “works” in one instance may not work in another.

Most interesting, this reframed definition of leadership allows for the idea that followers are responsible for the emergence of a leader. It also gives followers more agency to hold that leader accountable for their behavior. In short, leadership is hinged on the relationship between a given leader, their followers and a particular set of circumstances.

This piece was adapted from the answer to “What does leadership mean to you?”that was asked during a recent Quora Session I hosted along with my co-authors, Jeff Eggers and Jason Mangone. It has been previously published on Forbes.


  • Stan McChrystal

    Co-founder of McChrystal Group, Co-Author of Leaders

    Stan is co-founder of The McChrystal Group, a leadership consulting firm. He is also the New York Times bestselling author of Team of Teams and the co-author of the book, Leaders: Myth and Reality, along with Jay Mangone and Jeff Eggers. Stan is retired from the U.S. Army as a four-star general after more than thirty-four years of service. His last assignment was as the commander of all American and coalition forces in Afghanistan. He is a senior fellow at Yale University’s Jackson Institute for Global Affairs.