We use the words leadership and leaders in everyday language to refer to certain individuals and groups influencing the thinking and actions of others. Leadership scholars have developed schools, categories, and classifications of leadership and leadership theories to distinguish between different approaches and concepts. To get a bearing on this, it is worthwhile to briefly sort out several threads of common and academic use before providing a more formal analysis.

In many contexts we refer to leadership as a pattern of influence residing in an individual or group's innovative ideas and creative performance outside the confines of formal institutions. Leadership in this sense can be indirect and distant, as we point to a thought leader, an innovator of a set of business practices, or a prominent figure in an artistic or social movement. For example, Albert Einstein in the development of modern physics, or Paul C├ęzanne in the evolution of twentieth-century painting, or Martin Luther King, Jr. in civil rights, we easily understand the meaning of these claims. None of them did so because of holding an official position. In Leading Minds, Howard Gardner suggests that this form of leadership is real but indirect.

As we explore the purpose of leadership in organizations and institutions, and in many social movements, quite different themes come to light. This form of leadership is more direct and inclusive, as it occurs in small or large groups in which the various roles, responsibilities, and mutual expectations of the participants are defined by the group itself. The most familiar use of the term leadership is when it is used for formal positions of authority, as in the example of those who hold political office or carry out major responsibilities in a complex organization. These uses of the words leader and leadership revolve around power and authority and are the stuff of everyday life and language.

No sketch of common usage would be complete without acknowledging the traditional belief that leadership is variously defined by exceptional attributes of a leader, which we can categorize as skills and personal characteristics. From this perspective, leaders are special individuals marked by certain attributes and abilities such as high resolve, energy, intelligence, dexterity, persuasiveness, and a forceful or magnetic personality, often called charisma. Great leaders are shown as turning the pages of history. According to memoirs, biographies, and studies of business and political leaders, many in the contemporary world believe that leaders possess special qualities and skills such as assertiveness, decisiveness, and self-confidence. In the minds of people, they often provide a compelling vision that gives purpose and direction to the groups they lead. It would be foolish not to consider the broad appeal and continuing influence of this approach. Although recent scholarship provides a more nuanced, nuanced, and contextual understanding of leadership attributes, strong echoes of these traditional ideas are still heard in many contemporary discussions of leadership.

Charisma uses the term to refer to leaders whose followers feel a magnetic attraction to them in a given organizational context, so charisma is not a fixed personality trait.

Other scholars have published numerous studies to show that leadership effectiveness depends on circumstances or situations, an insight that has become a common assumption in the scholarly literature and in many fields of study. A number of studies have shown that while a task-oriented style of leadership is more effective when the situation is less organized or during a crisis, a more relationship-oriented style fits better when the situation is more normal. Effective presidential leadership in colleges and universities is highly situational because it depends on the right fit between circumstances, individuals, and institutions. A hero in one organization may be a failure in another.

Lately leadership has been theoretically and practically separated from the possession of formal authority and personal attributes. Many scholars have focused on the tasks or practices of leaders, which some would call a behavioral orientation. What leaders do is more important than who they are or what positions they hold. They do things like defining purpose, envisioning the future, setting high ethical standards, and renewing the organization in different situations.

The most widely shared understanding among contemporary theorists is that leadership is primarily an interactive relationship between leaders and followers and includes a variety of social processes, practices, and engagements through which followers respond to leaders' influence and leaders meet the needs and values of their followers. My concern for leadership will focus precisely on developing a collaborative and interactive approach to strategic leadership as a systematic organizational process. Rather than focusing in any way on the importance of authority or the skills, styles, qualities, and procedures of leaders, strategic leadership will be central to the interactive nature of direction and decision-making.