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What is Leadership?

What is Leadership?

Leadership as a concept is a hard subject to pin down. This is simply because it is used as a term in so many different contexts and in many varied situations. We can lead a riot, a family and a movement (as well as a business of course) and we mean slightly different things when we talk about each. However, perhaps the common thread running through all kinds of leadership is that it is a process in which people are guided by words and actions to follow a particular target or travel a certain road. Leadership then can be thought of as the relative ability to persuade or influence other people to contribute to the achievement of a particular vision or goal. It should be noted that this is quite different from coercing people do something. Leaders are able to motivate people to achieve the vision or goal, or to persuade or encourage people to do something because they want to do it (or at least think they do).

Given the above, any kind of leadership that does not create a vision, target or goal is likely to be aimless and mean that any followers spend their time “meandering” without any direction (and may well become frustrated and stop following a given leader sooner or later). A leader consequently needs a clear sense of direction but is this enough?  After all, almost anyone can set a target to reach but may have no-one willing to follow them. For that, at least one other ingredient (on top of a vision and influencing ability) is needed in the leadership mix and there are several schools of thought about what this extra dimension (or several) might be.

Different theories about leadership that prevail today

The so-called “Great Man leadership theory” (or what we would say today is the great man or woman theory) is based on the belief that leaders are exceptional people, born with innate qualities, making them in some way destined to lead. In other words, leadership is something that leaders have and others don’t. It’s a sort of charismatic quality-hard to define but nonetheless there when we see it. What’s more, if you don’t have this kind of charisma you can’t achieve much as a leader. The history books are full of these apparently “great” leaders such Kings and Queens, President and Popes, Army Generals and Navy Admirals. Although there is no doubt that many of these kinds of leaders influenced many people, whether it was (or is) an inborn trait or comes from external circumstances is now considered to be much more questionable. It is also much clearer to most today that many great leaders in the past did not inherit their ability to be leaders, but were brought up to believe that they could be leaders (in the case of Kings and Queens were literally told that they would lead one day). One very useful legacy of this theory then is that confidence in oneself as a leader (whether it is self-generated or bestowed by others) is an important feature of successful leaders, or the ability to encourage other people to believe in you if you believe in yourself.

Trait-based leadership theories are a more recent idea which suggests that you can draw up a list of traits or qualities associated with leadership. In this theory, leadership traits (such as the ability to be optimistic for example) can be observed in existing leaders (and especially those leaders who we admire) and then evaluated for their frequency of occurrence when good leadership is seen to be in evidence. Unfortunately, the list of possibly useful leadership traits is now very long and they tend to draw on many adjectives in the dictionary which describe some positive or virtuous human attribute, from “ambition” to “zest for life.” This is not to say that this is not useful but merely to say that, at least to date, it has caused more disagreement than agreement in definitional terms.

Behaviorist leadership theories are also a relatively recent idea and in general concentrate on what leaders actually do rather than on their traits or qualities. In this theory, different patterns of behavior are observed and categorized as ‘styles of leadership’. For example, two broad categories are an Authoritarian leader and a Democratic leader. Other styles that have been described using this approach are leaders whose style is “theory X type”, “theory Y type”, “laissez faire”, “interventionist” or even “enabling”. This theory has probably attracted most attention from practicing managers in recent years and there are many assessments or questionnaires which aim to help leaders to discover their preferred style and offer idea on how to develop new ones).

Transactional leadership theory emphasizes the importance of the relationship between leader and followers, focusing on the mutual benefits derived from a form of ‘contract’ through which the leader delivers such things as rewards or recognition in return for the commitment or loyalty of the followers. This kind of leadership is much more temporary or “fleeting” and its expression may change quite dramatically from project to project.

The Situational or contextual leadership theory or approach sees leadership as specific to the situation in which it is being exercised. For example, whilst some situations may require a firm-handed or autocratic style, others may need a more participative approach. It also proposes that there may be differences in required leadership styles at different levels in the same organization and that our leadership should adapt or “flex” to meet the “readiness needs” of the followers.

Transformational leadership theory suggests that successful leaders adopt the following approach:

They are able to:

  • inspire others by their high standards,
  • challenge people to achieve shared goals,
  • encourage people to be innovative, and
  • treat each person as an individual.

One significant feature of transformational leadership is the high moral or ethical standards that such leaders show. James MacGregor Burns, who first developed the theory, believed that the most effective leaders were people who showed, by their high standards, the sort of behavior that other people would value and thereby try to copy.

Dispersed Leadership as a very recent theory sees leadership as diffuse throughout an organization. In other words rather than lying solely with the formal, designated “leader” leadership may be spread amongst a whole team of people who have leadership of a task or a part of an overall goal or target to achieve. Self-managed teams are often quoted as a good example of dispersed leadership at work.


So what can we conclude from all of these different leadership theories or schools of thought? As we said at the outset, there is little doubt that a vision or goal to achieve in the future and a capacity to influence people are foundational skills for all leaders. From the many theories we have briefly covered we can perhaps also add that confidence, optimism, charisma, innovation and persistence all play their part as well (along with many other personal qualities perhaps). Ultimately however, these qualities are likely to change from one leader to the next and according to the circumstances in which he or she finds him or herself. We may therefore never find the perfect definition.

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About Dr. Jon Warner

Dr. Jon Warner is a prolific author, management consultant and executive coach with over 25 years experience. He has an MBA and a PhD in Organizational Psychology. Jon can be reached at

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About the Editor and Primary Author

Jon Warner

Jon Warner is an executive coach and management consultant and in the past has been a CEO in three very different companies. Read more

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