What is Leadership?


Leadership is a process not a position.  It involves something happening as a result of the complex interactions between a leader, a follower and the situation.  Leadership is both an art and a science.  There is the practice of leadership as well as the scholarly study of leadership.  If a person is an expert on leadership research, this does not necessarily mean that this can be translated to being an effective leader.  Conversely, some people may be effective leaders without ever having studied leadership.

However, knowing something about research on leadership is important in becoming an effective leader.  Leadership is also both rational (head) and emotional (soul/heart).  Leadership involves actions based on clear thinking as well as inspiration, reason and feeling.  We need to examine both sides of human nature to appreciate what leadership is.  Great leaders speak with vision and action and touch peoples’ feelings and emotions, eg Martin Luther King’s “I have a dream”.  However, aroused feelings can be used positively or negatively for good or evil, eg Adolf Hitler and ISIS.  Bureaucratic structures and strong authority norms can prevent people taking action, often with disastrous effects, eg a study of airline captains feigning incapacity during a final approach to landing in bad weather during simulation training.  The result was that 25% of the first officers in these simulated flights allowed the flights to crash.

There is a difference between leadership and management.  Words used to describe leaders include:  vision, strategy, inspiration, creativity, challenge, asking what and why questions, have a long-term view, innovation, development and change.  Words used to describe managers include:  accept status quo, imitation, short-term view, ask how and when questions, control, maintain, administer, efficiency, planning, paperwork, procedures and consistency.

Some researchers suggest that these differences reflect different personality profiles.  Both processes are necessary and can overlap and complement each other.  There are many myths about leadership.

First – ‘Good leadership is all common sense’.  Albert Einstein once said, “Common sense is the collection of prejudices acquired by the age of 18”.

Second – ‘Leaders are born not made’.

Neither view is right.  What matters is how both innate factors and learning interact.

Third – ‘You can only learn leadership from the school of hard knocks’.  The study of leadership can illuminate the critical leadership lessons from life.  All people are leaders.  Parents are the first leadership trainers in life.  The formal study of leadership can illuminate the experiences you have and give you a wider range of behaviours to draw upon.

The interaction between the leader, followers and the situation through the processes of influence, change and management can produce results.  The most important thing is to use a framework for assessing leadership.

In conclusion, there is no simple recipe for leadership effectiveness.  Instead, there are many different ways to be an effective leader in the three aspects of leadership discussed – leaders, followers and situations.