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What is Leadership

What is a Leader?   What is Leadership?

Conservative definitions focus on the leader’s authority and ability to get things done – the leader as:

  • authority, a person with the acknowledged power to direct and control others
  • achiever, a person who uses their power to set and achieve goals
  • manager, a person who directs others to achieve established goals
  • anyone who emerges as a leader and is accepted as such by the group, formally or informally.


Popular current concepts of leadership define the leader as:

  • an enabler, a person who enables others to experience or achieve something)
  • a motivator, a person who aspires to goals or ideals and inspires others to achieve them
  • an innovator, a person who inspires others to adapt, change directions, try new ideas, take risks.


These concepts create a picture of leadership based on the nature of the individual’s relationship and interactions with others, rather than on official or granted authority.


Modern management theory questions the more conservative definitions of leader based on authority, explaining that in the business world, a leader may be the CEO (chief executive officer) of an organisation, a manager or a supervisor, but may also be an ordinary worker who is respected and followed by others. While a leader may manage, not all managers are leaders, and not all leaders are managers, despite their authority to establish rules and enforce orders.


According to Warren Bennis (1998), a leader is not the same as a manager. A manager’s concerns are with practical applications (operations, control, administering, maintaining processes and standards etc.) where a leader’s concerns are with defining long term goals and creating an environment conducive to their achievement (people, culture, innovation, inspiration, growth). Bennis distinguishes between a manager’s transformational view (doing the right thing) and the transactional leadership view (doing things right). Being in a position of authority does not necessarily make a person is an effective leader. The ability to influence attitudes and behaviour of others is what makes a good leader. An effective leader will be respected and his/her directions will be followed.


Another traditional difference between a leader and a manager is their matter of motivating others. Managers usually use rewards, external incentives such as promotions, titles, privileges, money or recognition to motivate desired behaviours and use punishment to eliminate or reduce undesirable behaviour. Leaders, in contrast, motivate through inspiration, vision, and support. They enthuse others to aspire to a vision, inspire them by and support by encouraging others to discover their own potential and value within the group and by empowering them to use that potential for maximum benefit. Their support may sometimes include straight and firm talk about undesirable behaviours and clarification of expectations with the overall aim of guiding the person forward, rather than punishment.

Leadership and group culture

Clearly, a leader requires the ability to form and maintain a wholistic perspective and to ensure that the group’s activities are guided by that perspective. The leader and the communicated perspective will contribute to the group culture that will eventually develop, which may be positive or negative. A negative group culture is, in broad terms, culture is one where group members are uncertain, feel unable to safely express ideas or disagree, are not encouraged to cooperate, or do not feel like valued members of a group. A positive group culture in which members feel valued and safe and are encouraged to share ideas.


Group culture is not always easy to define but it will exert a great influence on the group and the individuals within it. Group culture will influence the group norms that develop and how they are enforced or maintained. For instance, in the workplace, it is not uncommon to find a culture of bullying and intimidation, or a culture of subtle discrimination on the basis of age, culture, gender or length of participation. Negative cultures can be found in government, the military, schools, body corporate committees and even in social groups.


Studies have found that leadership style at the top levels has a strong effect on lower-level leadership. The best leaders are identified as those who interact with their group and deal with them on a personal as well as a professional level. This not only enables the leader to keep his or her pulse on what’s happening – practically and emotionally – which in turn allows the leader to pick up on potential problems or difficulties before they grow. It also creates a culture in which others are encouraged to communicate, care about each other’s wellbeing and needs and in which the group is knitted together by personal relationships. Good leaders understand that the overall productivity of the group may be enhanced, not reduced, by social interaction and makes time for it through group events or celebrations and informal chats.


Leadership and accountability

While the leader may make others responsible for achieving their assigned or delegated tasks and the group responsible for achieving group goals, a leader does share responsibility. The same authority and power that enables the leader to delegate responsibility also makes him or her responsible for that decision and the consequences of it. Therefore, while the group or individuals may be accountable to the leader, the leader can also be held accountable. Even if management of a task is delegated, it is the leader’s responsibility to ensure that:


  •  the vision, goals and guidelines are communicated clearly to the relevant persons or groups
  •  the group is informed as required
  •  the group or others have access to necessary resources
  •  group performance is monitored, acknowledged and rewarded
  •  requirements, such as deadlines and standards, are understood and met.

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