What Is Effective Leadership?

How do we bring communities together to work willingly and effectively to produce desired results?

Based on years of research and practice, the Center for Creative Leadership has developed a definition of leadership. “Leadership is a social process that enables individuals to work together as a cohesive group to produce collective results.”

Let’s break this down. It’s a process, meaning it’s about the work of the people, not about an individual leader and the traditional image we might have of a single person standing in front directing a group. It’s social, meaning it involves people and is highly relational. It’s working together as a cohesive group – not a fracture or a splinter that excludes any one from being at the table. And, it’s producing collective results, where individual needs are subsumed to the needs of the group.

We’ve found leadership is effective when it generates three outcomes:

  • Direction: Agreement in the group on overall goals.
  • Alignment: Coordinated and integrated work within the group.
  • Commitment: Mutual responsibility for the group and its work.

Many of us have seen and experienced different types of leadership, but it’s typically not effective unless all three of these are happening. It’s like a three-legged stool, if one leg is missing or broken, it doesn’t work and that’s when we encounter challenges.

A formula for effective leadership is to ensure all three – direction, alignment and commitment – are present. You can apply this leadership model at your work, with an organization or group, or in your community. Start by assessing whether there is evidence of each, and if one or more elements are not there, take steps to build it.


  • In groups with strong direction: People have a shared understanding of what they’re aiming to accomplish together and can easily articulate it.
  • In groups with weak direction: People are uncertain about what group success looks like, or they feel pulled in different directions by competing priorities.


  • In groups with strong alignment: All members are clear about their roles and responsibilities and each person’s work fits well with the work of others.
  • In groups with weak alignment: Members are unclear about how their tasks fit into the larger work of the group, and tend to work more in isolation, at cross-purposes, duplicate efforts or miss deadlines.


  • In groups with strong commitment: Members feel mutually responsible for the success and well-being of the group. They trust each other, express passion and motivation for the work and will give extra efforts to help the group succeed.
  • In groups with weak commitment: Members put their own interests ahead of the group’s interests and contribute to the group only when it’s easy to do so or when they have something to gain.

Relationships are essential to each of these outcomes. Relationships build trust. Trust build partnerships. Partnerships lead to collaboration. Collaboration leads to successful outcomes.

William C. Snowden George G. Houston, PhD, is senior faculty for the Societal Advancement program at the Colorado Springs campus of the Center for Creative Leadership.

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WKKF Community Leadership Network