Defining Leadership: Art or Science (or Both)?

Mar 19, 2015 | Articles

Is there one true definition of the subject of leadership? Is the topic of leadership an art or science? These are all complex questions that leave scholars and business professionals providing conflicting opinions and definitions.

Perhaps there are varying definitions of the practice of leadership, simply because leadership style and action varies considerably from person to person.  One definition of leadership is, “The process by which an agent induces a subordinate to behave in a desired manner (Hughes, Ginnett,& Curphy, 2012).”

I believe most individuals in the workforce have experienced this method of leadership.  This form of leadership seems to lack the visionary aspect, and instead, focuses on day-to-day outcomes.

Leadership is not something that is reserved only for the workforce.  The definition of leadership, which states, “Directing and coordinating the work of group members,” resonates with me as a safety and HR professional as well as a college professor.   Teaching adult learners through group work and projects are standard curriculum.  Each group needs an individual who can envision the result and can coordinate specific tasks for each student to achieve the desired outcome.

A student recently came to me worried about a PowerPoint project she had due within a group of four other students.  Each student had completed a designated number of slides, but each styled their slides differently, and the presentation lacked fluidity.  The group would have been wise to appoint someone to envision the appearance of the presentation before the creation of slides.  A leader would have been highly useful in this situation.

The definition of leadership that stands out most in my current working situation is, “An interpersonal relation in which others comply because they want to, not because they have to.”   When considering the most appropriate definition of leadership found in many of the textbooks from which I teach, I would say that some of the definitions provided could also apply to a manager.  Managers can maintain and control.  However, leaders inspire and form a long-term vision (Hughes, Ginnett, & Curphy, 2012, p. 8).

The most applicable definition would be, “The process of influencing an organized group toward accomplishing its goals (p. 4).”  This definition brings to mind Martin Luther King, Jr. This dynamic man was able to influence an organized group to create action through the civil rights movement. He was, indeed, an influential leader and visionary.

Leadership is often argued as either an art or science.  However, author Charles Palus finds that it can be both. Although science and art are often considered opposite from one another, according to Palus, they hold many similarities.  Both are passionate.  Even though one may not find science a passion, scientists would certainly consider themselves passionate about what they are trying to accomplish.  Therefore, a leader may have the precision of a scientist, as well as the passion of both the scientist and artist.  The potter may argue that there is also precision to be found in the art of pottery (Palus, 2005).

The course textbook indicates that one may not be an expert on the science of leadership to be an effective leader.  Still, understanding the science may improve a natural leader.  By considering Palus’s arguments, as well as the course text, I find it important to note the harmony that can be found in practicing both the art and science of leadership.  A passionate leader is weak without knowledge, just as a knowledgeable leader will be weak without passion for his or her cause.


Dr. David W. Guess | Executive VP | Safety & Human Resources, Usher Transport, Inc.

NATMI Academic Advisory Board Chairman



Hughes, R.L., Ginnett, R.C., & Curphy, G.J. (2012). Leadership: Enhancing the lessons of Experience(7th ed.). New York, NY: McGraw-Hill/Irwin.

Palus, C. (2005). The Art and Science of Leadership. Issues & Observations, 25. Retrieved from

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