This factsheet was last updated in June 2016.
What is leadership?
Leadership can be defined as the capacity to influence people, by means of personal attributes and/or behaviours, to achieve a common goal. However, while leadership is currently much discussed and academic studies have multiplied since the 1970s, there’s no single definition or concept of leadership that satisfies all. The following three aspects of the nature of leadership have important implications for organisations.
Who are the leaders?
Originally, studies of leadership focused on the traits or behaviours of individuals occupying senior positions in organisations, and, as a result, leadership is often seen as an individual competence or a role. But leadership isn’t just about the qualities of a few, and isn’t always associated with a formal managerial role, although the leadership skills of chief executives and their teams are fundamentally important. More organisations today expect middle and junior managers, as well as employees without managerial responsibility, to act as leaders.
What is an effective leadership style?
Experience suggests that successful leaders don’t invariably behave in identical ways. They may act very differently, even in similar situations, and have quite different personalities. Different leadership qualities may be needed in different circumstances. To take an obvious example, Winston Churchill was a great wartime leader but less successful in peacetime. Similarly, CEOs who excel in turning round ailing companies may perform less well when things are more stable.
Is leadership a process?
As insights into the nature of leadership and the effectiveness of leaders have developed, it’s clear that individual traits or behaviours alone cannot fully explain leadership effectiveness. More research into the role of followers and the quality of the relationship between leaders and followers is now available, although the precise mechanisms of the mutual influence aren’t fully understood. With that in mind, leadership has been described as a process, or as a capability of the organisation (rather than individual), emphasising the interplay of leaders, followers, and the organisational context that impact leadership effectiveness.
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