What Leadership Is Not: Understanding Effective Influence

By Beth Coleman, M.Ed., and Jeffrey S. Katz, M.S.

Stock image of a leadership compass.

What is leadership? Some people consider it a trait. Others think of one or more behaviors. Conflicting perceptions seem limitless.

One hundred random individuals may share an equal number of definitions. This confusion extends beyond members of the general population. For centuries, academics, titans of industry, and high-level officials have failed to agree on an exact meaning.1 However, despite these differences, we seem to intuitively know effective leadership when we encounter it.

The notion of leadership often is romanticized, oversimplified, and examined with “hindsight bias.”2 Exploring what it is not hopefully can help debunk some common misconceptions and facilitate a more thoughtful and directed contemplation.

Inherently Virtuous

The human mind proves far-less logical than we might anticipate. In fact, the most rational thought processes belong to the psychopath.3 Our healthy human brains tend to reflect on situations and evaluate actions by how they make us feel.

We ascribe meaning to our behaviors and emotions based on individual lenses or filters. No two persons sort information the same way. The cognitive process through which we construct reality can stem from highly subjective, customized, and self-confirming notions. These influence how we define, anticipate, and evaluate leadership. To illustrate the power of our psychological biases, we can consider some high-profile examples and contemplate each through our “leadership lens.”

  • Abraham Lincoln’s preservation of the Union
  • Adolf Hitler’s conquest of continental Europe
  • Dwight D. Eisenhower’s invasion of Normandy and march to Berlin
  • Martin Luther King’s civil rights movement
  • Fidel Castro’s Cuban Revolution
  • John F. Kennedy’s challenge to put a man on the moon
  • Nelson Mandela’s revolt against apartheid
  • Gandhi’s movement to promote an independent India
  • Steve Job’s building of Apple Computer
  • Jack Welsh’s expansion of General Electric
  • Lee Iacocca’s rehabilitation of General Motors
  • Michelle Obama’s development of the Let’s Move! campaign
  • The Dali Lama’s effort to free Tibet from Chinese imperialism

Due to variances in each person’s psychological development, culture, context, education, geography, language, political affiliation, gender role, social identity, and other psychological constructs, not everyone will view each of these individuals as a true leader. Reviewing this list may cause an array of emotions, both positive and negative.

Beth Coleman

Ms. Coleman is an instructor in the Executive Programs Instruction Unit at the FBI Academy in Quantico, Virginia.

Jeffrey Katz

Colonel Katz serves as chief of the Chesterfield County, Virginia, Police Department.

This range of reactions further asserts that everyone views leadership through their own lenses and filters. Regardless of our individual responses to each example, we universally tend to romanticize leadership as a mechanism to advance a noble, moral, and gallant effort. While we likely will recognize leadership when it promotes a worldview that complements our own, it is not inherently virtuous.


A strong leader sits atop a muscular white stallion while fighting evil and speaking inspiring and meaningful words to battle-wary troops. Some of us hold such a view. We have been programmed that way.

While society perpetually romanticizes leadership as a mechanism for moral or noble efforts, perhaps it has less to do with the virtue of the mission than the ability to unify others and motivate them toward a common cause.

After all, some soldiers who died in service to the Confederacy did not hold a positive view of Lincoln. German troops in occupied France—perhaps ironically—countered the threat of Eisenhower’s invading force. Employees fired or reprimanded by company leaders may see these men as egomaniacs with quick tempers.

Paradoxically, plenty of people laud such individuals as celebrated leaders whose accomplishments warrant emulation by those who seek to lead others to greatness. Other persons argue that society ascribes too much recognition to these leaders and fails to honor the contributions of those who worked beside them.4

Disrupting the status quo and perpetuating discomfort is far from romantic. It can be quite dangerous.


How can we square these incongruent accounts and assessments of effective leadership? Most important, recognition of our “implicit and explicit biases” requires freeing ourselves from the burden of moral judgment while examining leadership behavior.5

Of course, we do not endorse or accept leaders without moral courage. However, to thoughtfully evaluate leadership, we must recognize how our psychology and social identity shape our views and judgments of morality.

“One man’s terrorist is another man’s revolutionary.”6 The distinction essentially depends on the perspective of people who have bought into a movement led by someone. Conflicts occur among opposing groups who consider their side morally justified to succeed. Effective leaders leverage this belief to convince their followers that their sacrifices and efforts further a righteous cause.

Setting aside the otherwise essential emotional elements of leadership allows us to view practices and behaviors in a more measured, objective, and scientific realm. This includes examining influencing actions while remaining aware of our own emotional responses and accompanying judgments. We should separate our feelings about leaders from the behaviors these individuals have displayed or the antisocial outcomes they may have achieved.

Many of the examples provided may seem provocative. Metaphorically, we can consider replacing these historic figures and their actions with something more benign, like a sports team or its coach. All of us can learn even from teams or coaches we normally do not support.

Aside from those suffering from psychopathy, people are emotional—not rational—beings. The way to people’s minds is through their hearts. Leadership is not rational.


Often, people think superficially of leadership. We do not consider critical nuances and complexities—behaviors demonstrated by individuals we do not know in unfamiliar environments, under varied conditions, and during sustained periods of time. What we perceive as effective actions simply represents our best-guess assessment of leadership success.

Individuals judge effectiveness by internally tallying a number of emotional calculations based on their view of the world, rather than a play-by-play examination of their thoughts, emotions, biases, and experiences that ultimately led to this score. To truly understand success, we must challenge what we think we know and consider the messy details of how leadership may have played a role in positive outcomes.

“A considerable amount of uncertainty has surrounded the topic of leadership.”

We need to have self-awareness of our own psychological paradigms and predispositions. Then, we must dispassionately assess all available information about the process we seek to understand. Absent such critical thinking and examination, the lessons we derive from that internal tally and score prove insufficient and merely reinforce what we believe we already know about leadership, a process known as “confirmation bias.”7 This leads to a circuitous process of thinking that offers no further understanding.

This process is not easy, clean, or safe. Our tendency to make incomplete, after-the-fact assessments of leadership effectiveness by examining an oversimplified evaluation of outcomes—rather than the contributing processes and behaviors—further clouds our ability to grasp the concept of successful leadership in practice. People are complex, and the process of leading them is anything but simple.

Rooted in Authority

Often, discussions about leadership involve comparisons with managers. However, people incorrectly conflate it with the concept of authority. Holding a formal title or high pay grade does not make someone a leader. Many of us have observed or worked for bosses who could not lead.

Commonly, leadership theories derive from the assumption that “…supervisors are leaders, subordinates are followers, and…identities are static” without considering that the leader-follower dynamic constitutes more of a social interaction process.8 Someone’s position may give them an elevated platform, but leadership and authority represent two different ideas.

One important concept is that of “leading up,” or using one’s influence to guide those with formal authority.9 The root of this idea underscores the distinction. Authority involves positional rule, while leadership entails the use of interpersonal power. In an extreme example, someone robbing another individual at gunpoint holds authority. However, this simply illustrates positional dominance.

Dictators and bullies abuse their platforms to coerce and mobilize others toward advancing their vision. They leverage their authority to gain compliance, whereas leadership seeks to leverage influence to gain commitment—a big difference! This important distinction highlights the reality that leadership is not rooted in authority.

Equivalent to Management

People often make an ill-informed and often counterproductive comparison between leaders and managers. We often see this in images, memes, and snippets on social media. Such communications romanticize the notion of leadership while marginalizing managerial behaviors.

Examples of these oversimplified and romanticized comparisons include such statements as “Leaders are concerned with people, managers are concerned about processes” or “Managers do what is right, leaders do the right thing.” This faux contrast infers that people in power are one or the other, making the two descriptions mutually exclusive.

Management and leadership constitute behaviors, not traits. Just as runners walk more frequently than run, those who lead understand the value of balancing the chaos of change with the structure of known processes. Leading too quickly poses as much danger as running too far and too fast.

Skilled leaders in any endeavor understand the essential value of balance. Imagine inspiring a generation to venture to the moon without a budget or plan a political movement with no agenda. Leadership and management entail complementary, not contradictory, behaviors.


Our minds are conditioned to prefer that things stay the same and that we remain committed to previously made decisions. This is known as “status quo bias.”10 At its essence, leadership involves a disruption of circumstances. People with a deep understanding of leadership recognize that such a disturbance, while often associated with progress to many, represents loss and interference to others. Change creates a feeling of disequilibrium. Every organization enjoys its own unique culture and process through which to restore order when faced with change.

Advancing a vision while failing to recognize the negativity some may experience likely will result in efforts to undermine the initiative. Perhaps regardless of the culture, employees will use some variant of four methods to counter those who threaten the status quo or engage in leadership behaviors. These include attacks, marginalization, diversion, and seduction.11

The prospect of leading change virtually assures a bombardment of these tactics from multiple directions and at varied intensities; it seems remarkable that anyone would place themselves in a position to disrupt the status quo.

“…everyone views leadership through their own lenses and filters.”


Among the leadership examples provided, nearly one-third of these individuals was murdered. Not only did each of these people become silenced forever but each assassination represents a cautionary message to any leader who tries to rally others around the prospect of blazing a new trail and solidifying a new reality. While physical murders rarely occur, character assassinations happen quite often.


We all have heard key organizational decision makers referred to as “paper pushers in the ivory tower.” That serves as an example of a marginalization. Maybe we think,  How can this person lead change? They do not even understand what we on the front lines do. They are out of touch.

Other variations of marginalization include accusations that leaders got a position they did not deserve or that throughout their career they only have accomplished gaining the acceptance of those above them.


Often in the form of “busy work,” diversions take away time from the process of leading change. For instance, leaders may encounter situations involving unfair grievances, accusations, or arbitrations.

While diversions do not necessarily constitute attacks, they often represent nonviolent assaults. They seek to cause persons making others uncomfortable to feel equally so. Diversions can help wear down those who wish to lead others into new territory.


Often, when people move into positions of greater authority, they receive a reminder: “Don’t forget where you came from.” The person providing such guidance figuratively asks this leader to look backward. It becomes difficult to advance change and promote progress when gazing over one’s shoulder.

Additionally, as social beings, we want people to like and accept us.12 Seductions represent a subtle tactic to dissuade someone from disappointing others and, thus, influencing change. Commonly, people leverage the universal human desire for acceptance to increase the likelihood of preserving the status quo and combating leadership efforts.

Perhaps this explains why individuals often romanticize leadership as valiant. Such a view may exist in part to assist in the seduction of those who otherwise might seek to lead change.

Leadership is not for the faint of heart.


Although exceptions may exist in certain cases, leadership is not inherently virtuous, romantic, rational, simple, rooted in authority, equivalent to management, or safe. Rather, it represents the process of navigating multiple fluid and dynamic interpersonal engagements with willing participants amid a complex and ever-evolving environment of opportunities, threats, and best-guess assessments. Also important, leadership is never about the leader.

A considerable amount of uncertainty has surrounded the topic of leadership. Hopefully, this exploration can shed light on the topic and stimulate further consideration with respect to how people view this deeply interpersonal process of influencing others.

“At its essence, leadership involves a disruption of circumstances.”

Ms. Coleman can be reached at and Colonel Katz at 


1 Joseph S. Nye, The Powers to Lead (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2008).
2 For additional information, see “Hindsight Bias,” Investopedia, accessed April 30, 2018,
3 Jonah Lehrer, “Psychopaths and Rational Morality,” ScienceBlogs, April 29, 2010, accessed May 1, 2018,
4 Mark Van Vugt, Robert Hogan, and Robert B. Kaiser, “Leadership, Followership, and Evolution: Some Lessons from the Past,” American Psychologist 63, no. 3 (April 2008): 182-96, accessed May 1, 2018,
5 For additional information, see Thomas DeMichele, “Understanding Explicit Bias and Implicit Bias,” Fact/Myth, November 18, 2016, accessed April 30, 2018,
6 Gerald Seymour, Harry’s Game (New York, NY: Random House, 1975).
7 Shahram Heshmat, “What Is Confirmation Bias?” Psychology Today, April 23, 2015, accessed May 29, 2018,
8 D. Scott DeRue, “Adaptive Leadership Theory: Leading and Following as a Complex Adaptive Process,” Research in Organizational Behavior 31 (2011): 125-50.
9 John C. Maxwell, The 360° Leader: Developing Your Influence from Anywhere in the Organization (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, 2011).
10 William Samuelson and Richard Zeckhauser, “Status Quo Bias in Decision Making,” Journal of Risk and Uncertainty 1, no. 1 (March 1988): 7-59, accessed May 1, 2018,
11 Ronald A. Heifetz and Marty Linsky, Leadership on the Line: Staying Alive Through the Dangers of Leading (Boston, MA: Harvard Business School Publishing, 2002).
12 Roy F. Baumeister and Mark R. Leary, “The Need to Belong: Desire for Interpersonal Attachments as a Fundamental Human Motivation,” Psychological Bulletin 117, no. 3 (1995): 497-529.