What Is Leadership?

How to Lead Your Team Skilfully

What Is Leadership? - How to Lead Your Team Skilfully

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Discover the qualities of a standout leader.

Introduction to Leadership

In its simplest form, leadership is influencing other people to follow. Therefore, anyone who can influence people to follow them has leadership qualities.

Leadership happens at all levels within organizations and society, not just among those who work in defined "leadership positions."

Leadership means different things to different people, different cultures, and in different situations. But it is always a multifaceted role.

Effective leadership enables followers to succeed. It sets direction, builds a vision, and adapts as circumstances require. Leadership is about mapping out where you need to go to "win" as a team or an organization. It's dynamic, exciting and inspiring.


What Is a Leader?

The word "leader" can evoke a variety of images. For example:

  • A political leader, pursuing a passionate, personal cause.
  • An explorer, striking out into the wilderness.
  • An executive, developing strategy to achieve organizational goals.

This article focuses on leaders and leadership in the workplace.

Opinions differ on who can and should lead. Management professor Michael Useem argued that rather than taking a traditional "top-down approach," leadership is most effective when it also comes from below. [1] And in today's complex, globalized workplaces, leadership often comes from many directions.

Indeed, in some organizations, it may be the leaders in supervisory positions who can have the biggest influence. After all, supervisors are closest to the work of team members and to the needs of the customer. Sometimes, individuals are expected to fulfill leadership roles among their peers.

Leadership is no longer regarded as a solitary activity. Distributed leadership, a model which originated in education, is an increasingly popular leadership approach, not least because many organizations today are simply too large and complex for any one leader to direct alone. See the section on "Hierarchy," below, for more on this.

Why Is Leadership Important?

All organizations need good leadership. Well-led organizations tend to be more productive, competitive and responsive to change. Their employees have a clearer vision of where they are headed and why, and are therefore more engaged and motivated. Organizations that excel at developing leaders tend to achieve higher long-term profitability.

What Makes a Good Leader?

An effective leader is a person who does the following:

  1. Creates a vision of the future.
  2. Works well with a team.
  3. Enables their team's success.
  4. Demonstrates flexibility.

Leadership brings together the skills needed to do these things. We'll look at each element in more detail.

1. Leaders Create a Vision

A vision is a realistic, convincing and attractive depiction of where you want to be in the future. Vision provides direction, makes priorities clear, and provides markers for success.

Leaders hold in mind their vision while understanding the reality of the present. They then embody that vision in everything they do and find ways of connecting it to employee performance to make it a reality.

Leaders consider how their industry is likely to evolve, and how their competitors are likely to behave. They look at how they can innovate successfully and shape their businesses and their strategies to succeed in future marketplaces. And they test their visions with stakeholders, and by assessing key risks using techniques such as Scenario Analysis.

Therefore, leaders are proactive – solving problems, looking ahead, and not being satisfied with things as they are.

A compelling vision is one that people can see, feel, understand, and embrace. Inspirational leaders provide a rich picture of what the future will look like when their visions have been realized. They tell inspiring stories and explain their visions in ways that everyone can relate to.

Here, leadership combines the analytical side of vision creation with the passion for shared values, creating something that's meaningful to the people they lead.

2. Leaders Work Well With a Team

Leaders cannot achieve their vision without other people's contributions. It's a leader's ability to motivate and collaborate with people that helps them to deliver that vision. As such, much of effective leadership relies on people skills.

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Leaders need to understand and respect the people on their team as individuals, and to know how to bring out the best in them as they work together. Awareness of team dynamics will help here.

Effective leaders recognize and consider the needs and views of their followers at all levels. Those leaders who pay close attention to how people feel about their work, and what motivates them personally, can take proactive, appropriate steps to aid engagement and retention.

The degree to which people feel valued is a primary source of motivation. Effective leaders recognize their team members' achievements and find ways of expressing their appreciation.

The ability to delegate to others and to empower them is another essential leadership quality. Done successfully, it can free leaders from day-to-day operations to focus on wider strategy, inform the vision with fresh ideas, and motivate team members. But this relies on an organizational climate of trust and confidence.

Effective leaders also look for leadership potential in others. By developing leadership skills within your team, you create an environment where you can ensure long-term success. Holding back your people for fear of losing power is a form of self-sabotage.

3. Leaders Enable Success

Enthusiasm can run high at the start of a new project. But it's down to leaders to guide their team toward the finish line and equip them with the right tools to get there.

People need goals and measures that are directly linked to the vision. Our article on Performance Management and KPIs (Key Performance Indicators) explains one way of doing this, and those on Objectives and Key Results (OKRs) and OGSM Frameworks present others.

Restating the vision in terms of its impact, and taking frequent opportunities to communicate this and its relevant objectives in an attractive and engaging way, can embed things further.

Leaders need to ensure that the work required to deliver results is properly managed – either by themselves, or by delegating to a dedicated manager or team of managers.

They'll also equip team members with the necessary skills and abilities to do their jobs and achieve the vision. They do this by giving and receiving feedback regularly, by training and coaching people, and by encouraging collaboration and skill sharing across the organization.

Change management is another essential discipline for leaders, as introducing and delivering the vision will likely require new attitudes, processes and roles for many, as well as time for adjustment.

4. Leaders Are Flexible

Leaders need to be adaptable – learning how and when to adjust focus, and embracing change themselves.

For example, the globalization of business is one of the most influential factors in how leadership is executed in organizations today, alongside the movement toward virtual and hybrid environments.

Back in 2003, executive coach and author Marshall Goldsmith identified five emerging characteristics that he believed would be increasingly important to future leaders. [2] And they remain true today. They are the ability to:

  1. Think globally.
  2. Appreciate cultural diversity.
  3. Develop technological know-how.
  4. Forge partnerships and alliances.
  5. Share leadership.

Leaders benefit from applying different models of leadership depending on context. For example, when working with new starters or in situations where quick decisions are required, a directive style is often best; an experienced team, on the other hand, benefits from a more hands-off approach. Similarly, some situations require more focus on the task at hand while others need more attention on relationship building.

Employees increasingly prefer to work for leaders who offer the best developmental challenges and opportunities and a culture that makes staying worthwhile beyond the basic security of a paycheck. A less authoritarian and more consultative approach to leadership is likely to be more effective in this scenario; Transformational Leadership is a particularly useful model.

Three Things Leaders Don't Do

What we need from leaders has changed over time. The following have been associated with leadership in the past but are no longer always seen, or desirable, for leadership today:

  1. Separating leadership and management.
  2. Demonstrating big and bold personality traits.
  3. Standing at the front and top of a hierarchy.

We'll look at each of these aspects below.

1. Leadership Vs. Management

Leadership and management are not the same thing. They are distinctive, yet complementary, processes. And, while leaders set the direction for the work being done, they also need to use management skills to guide their people to the right destination, in a smooth and efficient way.

Management has been described as the:

"… attainment of organizational goals in an effective and efficient manner through planning, organizing, staffing, directing, and controlling organizational resource." [3]

Today, we'd also include the responsibilities of people-development and exercising a duty of care.

Increasingly, individuals in management positions are required to exercise what might be more often termed leadership behaviors, such as creating a compelling vision, inspiring and motivating their people, behaving strategically, and leading change.

Managers can be highly skilled, good at their jobs, and valuable to their organizations without exhibiting leadership qualities. But a particular danger in these situations is that people or organizations that are being managed by such an individual or group may believe they're being led, but they're not. There may be no leadership at all, with no one setting a vision and no one being inspired. This can cause serious problems in the long term.

So, leadership and management are not mutually exclusive activities but are much more likely to be selected and exercised situationally, depending on what the circumstances dictate.

Learn more about the differences between leaders and managers in our infographic, Leadership Vs. Management.

2. Personality or Trait Theory

Trait theories are among the earliest attempts to explain why leaders are successful. Significantly, trait theories generally focus on the importance of selecting the right leaders rather than on developing them.

Charisma and confidence have long been synonymous with leadership and considered essential for a leader's success. Despite the attraction of this theory, these traits can, in fact, be detrimental in a leader, as the leader and their followers may believe that they have more skill than they actually do. You can hear our Expert Interview with Tomas Chamarro-Premuzic to find out more.

The command-and-control leadership methods of the last century are less appropriate in today's climate of rapid technological change, flatter organizational structures, and empowered employees.

Similarly, a willingness to take risks and be assertive in decision making can reap dramatic rewards. But when unbalanced by the shared expertise of a team, they can lead to resentment, distrust, fear, and even business failure.

Knowledge sharing, creativity, and taking the initiative to anticipate and resolve stakeholders' needs are all highly prized competencies in today's organizations. The "leader as hero" model has therefore been largely abandoned in favor of a more people-centered leadership approach, where leaders show a willingness to work in the best interests of staff, customers and other stakeholders.

Leadership consultants Dave Ulrich and Norm Smallwood urge organizations not to be preoccupied with leadership styles. [4] But they assert that unless a leader's personal beliefs match the organization's leadership brand, it will be difficult for a leader to come across as authentic and credible.

3. Hierarchy

While concepts of leadership were once hierarchical, this may no longer be the case. Leadership is adapting to encompass distributed activity. Distributed leadership has its roots in the education sector [5], and…

  1. is the product of an interacting network of individuals, not the act of a single person.
  2. opens leadership to those who would have previously been excluded.
  3. embodies the belief that expertise and influence exist across the organization, rather than being concentrated in the hands of a few people.

For example, outdoor clothing specialist WL Gore opted for a distributed leadership structure with a "lattice" formation. [6]

The development of sophisticated web technology allowed the emergence of new types of organizations based on mass collaboration. Such self-organizing bodies do have founders and leaders, but their leadership approach differs from that of more traditional companies. They are the guardians of the ethos, values and guidelines for the communities they serve.

Another more recent non-hierarchical leadership model is Holacracy. An organization using this model organizes its departments into circles and sub-circles based on roles and purpose. Sub-circles meet regularly and make their own decisions, considering the needs of the organization (the largest, all-inclusive circle). Designated members of sub-circles represent them, act as go-betweens, and make sure that their sub-circles' responsibilities stay on track. In this model, everyone has power and responsibility, and uses leadership skills to self-manage.

How to Become a Better Leader

There has been an enormous shift in attitudes toward leadership, both at academic and organizational levels. It is now widely recognized that top-down autocratic leadership has far less relevance to today's organizations, which face rapid change and have to fight to survive in an extremely competitive and increasingly global marketplace.

French and Raven describe six forms of power that leaders can use, which encompass both older and newer views of leadership. Of these, it's particularly helpful when leaders have expert power. People admire and believe in these leaders because they're experts in what they do. They have credibility, and they've earned the right to be heard and followed. This makes it much easier for these leaders to motivate and inspire their teams.

Good leaders are flexible, adaptable, ethical, and culturally aware, in order to be credible in the eyes of their employees and stakeholders. The effective leaders of today and tomorrow will consult, collaborate and distribute their power in order to get the best from themselves, their people, and the organization as a whole.

In our expert interview with him, U.S. Navy Captain Mark Brouker claims that leaders benefit from knowing that their role can make them intimidating to the people they lead, and taking steps to mitigate that. For example, corporate leaders make decisions about other people's job security and pay. So, a good leader should work to be approachable and build trust, and let people know that it's okay to make and learn from their own mistakes.

For Goffee and Jones, effective leaders tend to be those who are able to articulate the relationship between where they've come from and where they're headed, are comfortable with their roots, are self-aware, and can adapt as they rise through the ranks, without losing their authenticity. [7]

Authentic leaders are honest, responsible and courageous. They stay true to themselves, rather than trying to mould themselves into the kind of leader they think they should be, according to Harvard management professor Bill George. [8] They lead with purpose, meaning and values, build lasting relationships with others, and exercise self-discipline. Authentic leaders, George believes, build authentic organizations, which are less susceptible to mismanagement and corruption, and are better placed to deliver long-term value for their customers and investors.

Finally, trainer and coach Bruna Martinuzzi notes that authenticity comes from humility, which she believes is a type of quiet confidence where the person remains open to input.

Key Points

Leadership is complex and evolving.

Leaders set direction and help themselves and others to do the right thing to move forward. To do this they create an inspiring vision, then motivate and inspire others to achieve it. They also manage delivery of the vision, either directly or indirectly, and build and coach their teams to make them ever stronger. They're flexible and adapt to their circumstances.

Effective leadership is not limited by management roles, personality traits or hierarchy. Instead, good leaders embody expert power, credibility, trust, and authenticity.

Effective leadership is about all of this – and it's exciting to be part of the journey!

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  • Over a month ago BillT wrote
    Hi Miraluna,

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  • Over a month ago Miraluna wrote
    Thank you for sharing of us about management theory of leadership to have more knowledge can I use or to apply to the other people
  • Over a month ago BillT wrote
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