There can’t be many knowledge workers who don’t aspire to leadership. Indeed, despite recent trends towards flatter hierarchies and ‘peer-based’ organisational structures, there’s still a strong chance you either already have people directly reporting to you or that you need to deal with junior people elsewhere in your organisation.

Leadership is a vague concept. We all recognise what it is when we see it and we can sense where it is missing. But can we pin it down with a definition?

Professor Gordon Lippitt of George Brown University in Canada studied leadership for many years. After a lifetime’s work he said:

Leadership is the worst defined, least understood personal attribute sometimes possessed by human beings.

Many people have tried to define leadership with varying degrees of success. The Concise Oxford Dictionary doesn’t even attempt a definition. Until the early years of the 20th century most people around the world though leadership was somehow related to noble birth. Things might not have changed all that much. According to Burke’s Peerage, which tracks the world’s blue-bloods, John Kerry and George Bush who stood in the US presidential election earlier this decade are both closely related to the British royal family.

In the 1930s conventional thinking said that leadership was an innate superiority that allowed some people to exercise dominating influence over others. The idea of a ruling class was replaced with the concept of people from any walk of life being born with built-in leadership qualities. This thinking says if you have the right combination of mind, spirit and character, it is only a matter of time before you emerge as a leader. That approach gave the world Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini.

More recent studies show there is no such thing as a born leader – merely that a person’s ability to lead others depends on the circumstances at the time.

While modern thinking says there’s no such thing as innate leadership, there are nevertheless certain leadership characteristics. In their 1987 paper with the snappy title, “Towards a Behavioural Theory of Charismatic Leadership In Organisational Settings”, J A Conger and R N Kanungo identified five key characteristics of charismatic leaders:

Confidence: a leader has complete confidence in their judgement and abilities. They don’t question their place in front of other workers.

Vision: a leader carries a picture of an idealised goal in their head. This represents a future that is better than the status quo. The greater the gap between the status quo and that idealised goal, the more likely that followers will regard their leader as visionary.

Conviction: people regard charismatic leaders as being committed to achieving their goals. This conviction manifests itself in the way the leader is prepared to take on a high degree of personal risk, often incurring high personal costs and self-sacrifice.

Unconventional: in order to show leadership qualities an individual needs to engage in behaviour that observers regard as novel, unconventional and counter to existing norms. When this behaviour pays off, the result is surprise and admiration in others.

Change agents: outsiders view leaders as agents of radical change not caretakers of the existing status quo.