There is no definite definition of ‘leadership’, but it can be broadly seen as the ability to understand people’s motivation and leverage it to achieve a common goal. Skillful leaders may achieve positive outcomes for individuals, teams, organisations and wider communities through different approaches and operating at any level. So it’s important to develop leaders to fit the needs of an organisation, as well as invest in environments that enable them to be effective.

This factsheet investigates the concept of leadership and how it differs from management, different approaches to leadership development, and briefly examines the role of a principles-based approach to developing leadership skills in people professionals.

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Leadership can be defined as the process of understanding people’s motivation and leveraging it to achieve a common goal. Although there is no definition of leadership that satisfies all, it's clear that leadership has three integral elements:

  • Self: self-awareness and skilful expression of personal qualities.
  • Other people: influencing, motivating, and inspiring stakeholders 
  • The job to be done: defining, clarifying, and revising the task to be achieved.

The notion of purpose, defined as 'what are we doing this job for', is closely linked to these elements. When purpose is shared, people see a reason for their efforts, which motivates them to perform better. In Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s words: ‘If you want to build a ship, don’t drum up the men to gather wood, divide the work and give orders. Instead, teach them to yearn for the vast and endless sea.’

When we asked the participants of our August 2020 ‘hackathon’ to answer the question: what will the people profession look like in 2030, purpose (together with sustainability and responsible business) was one the key trends that emerged. The outcomes of the People profession 2030 future trends report included outline the importance of purpose-led business.

Who are the leaders?

The first studies of leadership focused on the traits or behaviours of individuals in senior positions. As a result, leadership is often seen as an individual competence or a role. However, whilst leadership is often exercised by those in charge, being in charge is not necessarily a requirement. 

As organisations need to become more agile, there’s increasing recognition that all employees need to demonstrate leadership qualities, although the aims and focus of that leadership may change with a person’s level and differ from one organisation to another.

What is an effective leadership style?

Experience suggests that successful leaders don’t all behave the same. They may act differently, even in similar situations, and have quite different personalities. 

No matter the style of leadership, it’s important that it’s inclusive. The CIPD-sponsored report ‘Inclusive Leadership... driving performance through diversity!’ defines inclusive leaders as those who are aware of their own biases and preferences, and actively seek out and consider different views to inform better decision-making.

Is leadership a process?

As more is learned about the nature of leadership, it’s clear that individual traits or behaviours alone cannot fully explain leadership effectiveness. Instead, process leadership theory suggests that leadership amounts to the relationship between the leader and followers, although the precise mechanisms of the mutual influence aren’t yet fully understood. With that in mind, leadership has been described as a process that can be learned and taught within organisations rather than a combination of specific individual attributes.

The idea of management that evolved in the nineteenth century was largely based on the principles of command and control. Managing was, and to some extent still is, about the planning and implementation of strategies, tactics and policies imposed from the top. Administering a strategy is central to this view of management. Later studies distinguished between ‘managing tasks’ and ‘managing people’ and acknowledged that influencing people to achieve objectives (leadership) was part of a manager’s role.

Due to the initial focus of leadership research at senior manager level, ‘leadership’ and ‘management’ are linked and sometimes used interchangeably. Central to many interpretations, leadership is seen to involve developing an initial vision and inspiring others to achieve such vision, while management involves translating the vision into reality by guiding the actions and behaviours of a team. A review of the value of leadership styles suggests that both aspects have a part to play in achieving an organisation’s objectives.

Following a ‘soul searching’ exercise spurred by the financial crisis of 2008, theories of ‘ethical leadership’ have emerged, which emphasise the need for certain core values alongside a sense of purpose. The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has also highlighted the need for a more ethical and people centric approach to leadership, with trust being a fundamental trait of successful leaders. 

It’s also fundamental that leaders are guided by principles that allow them to make ’right’ and ’worthwhile’ decisions regardless of circumstances. Ongoing shifts in corporate governance are driving leaders to articulate these principles and make decisions in an ethical way.

Most leadership studies focus on measuring employees’ perceptions of their leaders’ behaviours and linking those to job satisfaction, performance and other outcomes. Our Purposeful leadership research considered the moral values of leaders themselves.

Key findings of the research:

  • Just over 20% of managers in the UK rated themselves highly as purposeful leaders, while 40% of employees in the UK said their leader behaves ethically.

  • A third of employees surveyed said they operate in an ‘ethical void’ and rated both their leader’s ethical behaviour and the alignment of their own values with those of the organisation as low. Just over a quarter reported ‘ethical alignment’ and scored highly on both.

  • Purposeful leadership is linked to employees’ job satisfaction, whether they find meaning in their work, their willingness to ‘go the extra mile’, their intention to quit, and lower levels of cynicism towards the organisation.

Dan Pink has said ‘at some level, leadership is about creating other leaders.’ However, because there’s no template for leadership behaviour, questions remain as to whether leaders can be developed and what the qualities and competencies of leadership are. More importantly, how can organisations encourage such qualities among their employees?

Following the distinction between individual leaders' styles and leadership as a process, two kinds of development activities are needed:

  • Identifying and developing capabilities of individuals to lead others effectively.
  • Creating organisational cultures and climate that enable leadership.

Developing individual leaders

Organisations can carry out diverse activities to maximise an individual’s capability to lead. Our management development factsheet looks at identifying development needs and ways of developing leaders and managers. As the enei report stresses, it’s imperative that any management development programme also promotes inclusive leadership behaviours. 

Many organisations provide training, development and experience to develop individual leadership capabilities. However, people still often get promoted into managerial roles based on their technical competence, rather than leadership skills and are therefore more likely to need support to become effective leaders. Our report Developing managers to support employee engagement, health and wellbeing collected evidence on designing successful manager development programmes.

In accordance with leadership theories focusing on leaders’ values, some development approaches focus on identifying and developing individuals that display honesty, integrity and strong moral principles and translate them into behaviours for leading others. Our research report Cultivating trustworthy leaders showed how some organisations have used value-based approaches in recruitment and development to foster employees’ trust in their leaders.

Organisational design and development to enable leadership

As mentioned above, leadership is often viewed as a collective phenomenon or a process. Specifically, a distributed leadership model suggests that leadership can be shared by team members, with the role of leader taken up when required, guided by team dynamics and involving lateral influence. This approach can only be successful if the organisation structure and culture are designed to support it, rather than being centred on individual leadership. 

Our research report Leadership – easier said than done showed that even where individuals have leadership skills, their ability to lead is affected by organisational factors, including hierarchical structures, performance management systems and people policies and practices. Aligning organisation design and culture can bridge the gap between leadership capability and ability – see our report Tackling the barriers to leadership overview and case studies or listen to our podcast on barriers to leadership.

There's more in our factsheets on organisation design and organisation development.

Our Profession Map is based on the purpose of the people profession as championing better work and working lives to drive positive change. By having this clear purpose and working to the high standards set by the Map, the profession collectively gains a higher degree of trust and credibility which allows it to have the greatest impact on practices in people and organisational development.

In the past, people professionals have relied on so-called ’best practice’ to develop people management practices for their organisations. But the rapidly changing world of work means this concept is increasingly irrelevant in many contexts. Instead, professionals need to make situational judgments, underpinned by relevant evidence, and guided by fundamental principles to achieve impactful outcomes. This approach allows people professionals to meet the specific needs of their organisation and workforce without compromising core principles. Our Profession for the Future work encourages people professionals to act as ‘provocateurs’, encouraging innovative ways of doing business or new areas of strategic focus.


Acas - Leadership

Books and reports

ARMSTRONG, M. (2016) Armstrong's handbook of management and leadership for HR. 4th ed. London: Kogan Page.

GOLD, J. and ANDERSON, L. (2017) Developing leadership and management skills. London: Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development and Kogan Page.

LEARMONTH, M. and MORRELL, K. (2019) Critical perspectives on leadership: the language of corporate power. London: Routledge.

LEWIS, C. and MALMGREN, P. (2018) The leadership lab: understanding leadership in the 21st century. London: Kogan Page.

PULLEN. P. (2022) Virtual leadership: practical strategies for success with remote or hybrid work and virtual teams. 2nd ed. London: Kogan Page.

WYATT, S. (2020) Management and leadership in the 4th industrial revolution: capabilities to achieve superior performance. London: Kogan Page.

Journal articles

AZIZ, H. (2019) Why is humility so relevant for leaders and can it be developed through coaching? Strategic HR Review. Vol 18, No 1. Reviewed in In a Nutshell, issue 85.

BAZERMAN, M.H. (2020) A new model for ethical leadership. Harvard Business Review. Vol 98, No 5, September. pp.90-97.

BEDDOES-JONES, F. and SWAILES, S. (2015) Authentic leadership: development of a new three pillar model. Strategic HR Review. Vol 14, No 3. pp94-99.

CHAPMAN, M. (2020) Courageous leadership: what defines it in the modern organisation. Strategic HR Review. Vol 19, No 2. pp47-50.

FERNANDEZ-ARAOZ, C., ROSCOE, A. and ARAMAKI, K. (2017) Turning potential into success: the missing link in leadership development. Harvard Business Review. Vol. 95, No 6, November/December. pp86-93.

GINO, F. and PISANO, G.P. (2011) Why leaders don't learn from success. Harvard Business Review. Vol 89, No 4, April. pp68-74.

HURLEY, A. (2020) What kinds of leaders will equip organisations to survive crisis and disruption? People Management (online). 26 March.

MOLDOVEANU, M. and NARAYANDAS, D. (2019) The future of leadership development. Harvard Business Review. Vol 97, No 2, March. pp40-48.

ROSS, S. (2019) Why some talented leaders succeed while others derail. Human Resources (online). March. pp38-40.

WATKINS, M.D. (2012) How managers become leaders. Harvard Business Review. Vol 90, No 6, June. pp65-72.

CIPD members can use our online journals to find articles from over 300 journal titles relevant to HR.

Members and People Management subscribers can see articles on the People Management website.

This factsheet was last updated by Giorgia Gamba Quilliam: Digital Learning Portfolio Manager, Profession Core Themes, CIPD

Giorgia designs, develops and manages learning content at the CIPD, including digital courses, factsheets, podcasts and web content. She was instrumental in developing the first ever fully digital qualification delivered in partnership with AVADO, which won both a Training Journal and a Learning Technology award in 2016.

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