Old English lædere "one who leads, one first or most prominent," agent noun from lædan "to guide, conduct" (see lead (v.)). Cognate with Old Frisian ledera, Dutch leider, Old High German leitari, German Leiter. As a title for the head of an authoritarian state, from 1918 (translating Führer, Duce, caudillo, etc.). Meaning "writing or statement meant to begin a discussion or debate" is late 13c.; in modern use often short for leading article (1807) "opinion piece in a British newspaper" (leader in this sense attested from 1837). The golf course leader board so called from 1970.
word-forming element meaning "quality, condition; act, power, skill; office, position; relation between," Middle English -schipe, from Old English -sciepe, Anglian -scip "state, condition of being," from Proto-Germanic *-skepi- (cognates: Old Norse -skapr, Danish -skab, Old Frisian -skip, Dutch -schap, German -schaft), from *skap- "to create, ordain, appoint," from PIE root *(s)kep-, forming words meaning "to cut, scrape, hack" (see shape (v.)). It often forms abstracts to go with corresponding concretes (friend/friendship, etc.).