How does one define leadership?

I have tried, with limited success, to come up with a workable definition. It’s sort of like talking about love… What is love? How does one define it? What does it look like?


Here’s my best stab at defining leadership.  Leadership results when “one” consistently provides appropriate support and direction for “the other”.  If you do a good job of it, then when “the other” find themselves in an uncomfortable (and novel) situation, they will turn to you for a solution.

Sometimes that’s a good thing, and sometimes not! Because when the “one” is trying to develop “the other” as a strong and self-confident being, then offering choice is actually more important.  But sometimes offering choice isn’t a very good idea, because the wrong choice could lead to unfortunate emotional consequences. That’s why I say “appropriate” support…don’t offer more leadership than is required at a given time.

Now that I have philosophized for a while, let’s take a quiz:

  1. You are in a building and there is an earthquake.  People are screaming and injured everywhere. You are trapped in the building with a small child who is in your care at that time. Neither of you are injured.  What does the adult do? What might leadership look like in this scenario?
    1. Allow the child to walk up to injured people and observe blood and gore.
    2. Start screaming “we’re all going to die!’
    3. Stand still and do nothing, hoping the child will make a good choice not to look around or start screaming.
    4. Take control of the situation and structure the child. Block their view. Speak calmly. “Sit in that chair.” etc.
  2. You are with a reactive dog in public.  Your dog sees another dog coming close and prior experience suggests that this situation may well end badly.  What does a leader do? What might leadership look like in this scenario?  (Hint: What would you do with a child in the same situation?)
    1. Allow the dog to bark and lunge at the end of the leash, working up into a froth, without reacting.
    2. Start screaming “No no bad dog!”
    3. Stand still and hope the dog will make a good choice (Hint: “Hope” is not a training technique)
    4. Take control of the situation and structure the dog – remove the dog one way or the other; calm your voice, etc.

In the first scenario, I hope that everyone recognizes that the correct answer is to take control of the situation and structure the child.   We do not expect children to make good decisions when they are in over their head. We recognize that preventing the start of a panic is a good thing to do! And we don’t waste time about it either; we get involved instantly before things go badly.

Adults are natural leaders when children are involved so in an emergency/unknown situation, not only will the adult naturally take control, but the child will naturally look to the adult for direction. That’s because the child has learned, in their short lifetime, to look to adults when they need help. (One hopes but I digress….)

Leadership is taking control when control needs to be taken – when choice (if offered) is likely to go badly.   If you act as a leader, reliably and over time, “the other” will begin to look to you when unsure of how to solve a problem independently. That is a very good place to be.

That answer should help you solve the second problem.

Offer leadership when you recognize that there is only one choice that will support the long-term, emotional well being of the dog.  And when leadership is not required, allow your dog choice as much as possible.  If you do this consistently then your dog will look to you when they need help – and that’s a good place to be.