Leadership Terms Glossary

The Leadership Glossary provides practical definitions of leadership and science terms and concepts used in the Practical Leadership blog.

Leadership Terms and Concepts

A common human tendency to rely too strongly on one piece of information when making decisions or forecasting. Once the anchor is set, the person tends to maintain a bias toward that value. As an example, an employee may review the cost of a small prior project prior to creating an estimate for a new major project proposal. This will likely bias the estimate toward the cost of the prior project, understating the magnitude of the proposed work. I have seen this happen often when small contractors bid on large projects. Anchoring happens without any conscious intent to distort the forecast.
An idea or fact that is taken for granted as true. Leaders must make assumptions when creating a vision and planning or executing to achieve their goals. Necessary assumptions are usually time-dependent (e.g., “Sally is available to work on this for the next two months”), whereas people-dependent assumptions are usually best avoided (e.g., stereotypes). Read more on how assumptions affect leadership
Chaos is not utter confusion. It is constrained, rather than explosive, instability. It is a combination of order and disorder in which patterns of behavior continually unfold in irregular but similar forms. When a system is either stable or unstable, its short- and long-term futures are perfectly predictable. When it is in chaos, however, the short-term behavior can be predicted because it takes time for small changes to escalate. But it is impossible, even in principle, to predict specific long-term outcomes… Clear-cut connections between cause and effect are lost in the unpredictable unfolding of events (Stacey, 1992, pp. 62-63).
Complexity results from the interaction of the parts of a system wherein each part is relatively simple and responds to the limited information presented to it. Complexity “entails that, in a system, there are more possibilities than can be actualized.” It is hard to define precisely, as many systems that have complexity when viewed close up, appear to be simple when viewed from afar (Cilliers, P. pp. 2-5). Hence, it is common that in the executive suite, solutions appear simple, while when viewed at the staff level, many confounding situations are apparent.
Complex System
“A complex system is one whose evolution is very sensitive to initial conditions or to small perturbations, one in which the number of independent interacting components is large, or one in which there are multiple pathways by which the system can evolve” (Whitesides &amp Ismagilov). “Complex systems are systems in process that constantly evolve and unfold over time” (W. Brian Arthur). Both definitions are found in Science Vol. 284. No. 5411 (1999) , a special edition on complex systems.
“As a group works together and faces common problems, it gradually builds common assumptions about itself and norms of conduct. In other words, the group as a group learns how to cope with its problems of external survival in its environment and to manage and integrate its internal processes. The sum total of this learning, as a body of shared implicit assumptions that come to be taken for granted, can be thought of as the culture of that group” (Schein, pg. 186)
An individual who has special skills or proficiency in a limited area of knowledge or action. Experts are commonly used to inform leaders of actions that may be taken, yet two experts in the same field may present diametrically opposed recommendations as each has different experience and different reactions to the experience. Read about choosing experts for leadership advice
Fundamental Attribution Error
The attribution of the causes of others’ behaviors to personal factors (personality, beliefs, attitudes and values) and the causes of one’s own behavior to situational factors. The attributor underestimates the causal significance of situational pressures on the others’ behaviors and underestimates the significance of personal factors on one’s own behavior. (Johnson & Johnson, pg.598)
Commonly defined as a specific desirable future state, measurable and time-targeted, that is formed around a vision and mission. Multiple goals are typically defined to support a mission.
Two or more individuals in [direct] interaction, each aware of his or her membership in the group, each aware of the others who belong to the group, and each aware of positive interdependence as they strive to achieve mutual goals (Johnson & Johnson, pg. 599).
The tendency of members of highly cohesive groups led by dynamic leaders to adhere to shared views so strongly that they totally ignore external information inconsistent with their views. (Johnson & Johnson, pg. 599).
A leader is a person who can influence others to be more effective in working to achieve their mutual goals and maintain effective working relationships among members (Johnson & Johnson, pg. 175).
A leader is a dealer in hope (Napoleon). Learn about the differences between leader and manager.
Leadership is the process through which leaders [influence others to be more effective in working to achieve their mutual goals and maintain effective working relationships among members] (Johnson & Johnson, pp. 175-176).
Leadership is the art of getting someone else to do something you want done because he wants to do it (President Dwight Eisenhower). Eisenhower added an important qualifier: “You do not lead by hitting people over the head. That’s assault, not leadership.”
Leadership Approach
A leadership approach is a basic conceptual structure or framework by which leadership and business skills are applied to draw the leader and organization closer to achieving their goals. Actions taken through the approach enable actual progress or the gaining of more knowledge that will make future actions more likely to be effective. Learn how a difference in leadership approach affected the crisis outcome for two companies.
Leadership Skills
Leadership skills “are the sum total of your ability to help the group achieve its goals and maintain an effective working relationship among members… Anyone can learn leadership skills. All it takes is practice, practice, practice. Once learned, leadership skills can be used throughout life.” (Johnson and Johnson, pg. 176)
Leadership Styles
Leadership styles are different approaches by which a leader may fulfill his or her leadership role. These styles may be defined in an infinite variety of ways, but an early study defined three that are still commonly refered to today: autocratic (dictating orders and setting policy without involving group members), democratic (setting policies through group discussions and decisions and supporting cooperation among members) and laissez-faire (allowing the group to make all decisions).
An objective or purpose established by an organization to turn a vision into reality. Normally, it identifies what is to be accomplished without defining how it will be accomplished. A mission tends to be a long term commitment to achieve a vision.
“A social arrangement which pursues collective goals, which controls its own performance, and which has a boundary separating it from its environment.” (Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary, organization). This definition allows for the social relationships to include people and other organizations, including businesses. Teams are organizations, but not all organizations are teams.
“The ability to influence and control others while resisting their influence and control.” (Johnson & Johnson, pg.602)
An organizational unit that purposely holds itself separate from other parts of its parent organization and pursues goals that benefit it while reducing the effectiveness of other units within the parent organization, thus harming the parent organization’s over-all performance. When viewed on a hierarchical organization chart, the silo appears to have walls running form the top of the silo to its bottom, effectively insulating its members from beneficial interaction with the members of other organizational units. Learn about how silos threaten leadership
Skilled Incompetence
a learned tendency to “use practiced routine behavior (skill) to produce what they do not intend (incompetence). We can see this happen when managers talk to each other in ways that are seemingly candid and straightforward. What we don’t see so clearly is how managers’ skills can become institutionalized and create disastrous side effects in their organizations.” (Argyris, C., pg. 74). Experts often are subject to skilled incompetency, as they limit their thinking to their area of expertise, especially when they are working together. Read more at Leadership in Choosing Advice.
A group in which the members have specific roles or functions to perform and have a limited life-span of membership (Johnson & Johnson, pg.545).
An analytic structure designed to explain a set of observations. It is not a guarantee that the next observation will fit the theory. For this reason - plus the many limitations and simplifying assumptions made in postulating finance, economics and business theories - they should not be used to predict future events or results.
Trust is assured reliance on the character, ability, or truth of another. Trust in organizational relationships can be divided into three types: calculus- or deterrence-based trust, knowledge-based trust, and identification-based trust. The third type, identification-based trust, is crucial for any authentic leader to show to his followers. It occurs when the leader’s desires and intentions are seen as the same as one’s own. Calculus-based trust is presented as being based upon the fear of consequences of not acting on a commitment, so the threat of punishment motivates consistent of behavior on the part of the ones being trusted. For instance, a boss may punish the employee or the work group may ostracize any member who acts outside the norms of the group. Knowledge-based trust is grounded on the other’s predictability, knowing the other well enough to be able to anticipate the other’s behavior. This form of trust will be absent for any new boss or prospective leader and may grow over time if the person proves to be true to his statements. (Lewicki & Bunker, pp. 119-124). Learn more about The Importance of Trust to Your Leadership.
an image or concept of the future that forms the basis for your plans and actions and which inspires or motivates your followers. Since a goal is commonly defined as a specific desirable future state, measurable and time-targeted, your goals are formed around your vision and mission. Read about the role of vision in leadership.


  1. Argyris, C. (1986) Skilled Incompetence. Harvard Business Review. 64(5), pp. 74-79.
  2. Cilliers, P. (1998) Complexity & Postmodernism: understanding complex systems. London: Routledge.
  3. Johnson, D. and Johnson, F. (2003) Joining Together: group theory and group skills (8th ed.). Boston: Allyn and Bacon.
  4. Lewicki, R. & Bunker, B., (1996) Developing and maintaining trust in work relationships. In R. Kramer and T. Tyler (Eds.), Trust in Organizations: Frontiers of theory and research. pp. 114-139. Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE Publications.
  5. organization. (2009). In Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary. Retrieved March 19, 2009, from
  6. Schein, E. (1999) Process Consultation Revisited: building the helping relationship.Reading, MA: Addison-Welsey.
  7. Stacey, R. (1992) Managing the Unknowable: strategic boundaries between order and chaos in organizations.San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
Share and Enjoy:
  • LinkedIn
  • Google Bookmarks
  • Digg
  • TwitThis
  • Facebook
  • StumbleUpon
  • YahooMyWeb
  • Yahoo! Buzz