Leadership is the process whereby an individual influences a group of individuals to achieve a common goal. Leadership may be defined as a person embodying the will of a group; as a combination of special traits or characteristics that individuals possess enabling them to induce others to accomplish tasks; or as the things leaders do to bring about change in a group. The leadership process involves leaders, those who engage in leadership, and followers, those toward whom leadership is directed.
It is difficult to find one overall definition of leadership, but most definitions of leadership contain the elements found in Ralph M. Stogdill’s classic definition of leadership as the process (act) of influencing the activities of an organized group in its efforts toward goal setting and goal achievement. Leadership is a process involving three key elements: influencing others to behave in a certain way; working with people in a group context; and influencing group members in the direction of goal accomplishment. More recent discussion of the notion of leadership tends to highlight the leader as a manager of meaning, focusing on how leaders engage in “sense-making” in the organization. In both cases leadership is seen as a process whereby the leader identifies what is important in the organizational context.
Leadership is in many ways similar to management. Leadership and management both involve influence, entail working with people, and are concerned with goal accomplishment. Nevertheless, the functions of leadership may also be seen as quite different from management. While management produces order and consistency, leadership produces change and movement. In this perspective the primary functions of management are concerned with planning, organizing, staffing, and controlling. The primary functions of leadership are concerned with establishing direction, aligning, motivating, and inspiring people.
Throughout history, several different approaches to leadership have been proposed. An early systematic attempt to study leadership was the trait approach that dominated the scene up to the late 1940s. The trait approach seeks to determine the personal qualities and characteristics of leaders and suggests that leaders are born with special traits that make them great leaders. Among the many traits contributing to leadership identified in this tradition are intelligence, self-confidence, determination, integrity, and sociability.
In contrast to the trait approach, the skills approach emphasizes the competencies needed for effective leadership. While the trait approach implies a belief that leaders are born rather than made, the skills approach implies that leadership competences could be learned. An early work in this tradition is the three skills approach, distinguishing between three basic personal skills: technical, human, and conceptual. It is important for leaders to have all three skills, but at different levels of the management structure, some skills are more important than others. The important skills for top management are human and conceptual skills, for middle management all three skills are important, and for supervisory management technical and human skills are important. Later models point furthermore to the importance of problem-solving skills, social judgment skills, and knowledge.
A change of focus from the personal characteristics of leaders to their behavior as leaders led to the development of the style approach that was important during the late 1950s and 1960s. In the early work on leadership behavior by a group of researchers from Ohio State University, the empirical studies showed that responses clustered around two general types of leader behavior: initiating structure and consideration. Initiating structure behaviors include organizing work, defining role responsibilities, and scheduling work activities. Consideration behaviors are relationship oriented behaviors and include building respect, trust, and liking between leaders and followers.
Generally the style approach suggests that leaders engage in two primary types of behaviors: task behaviors, such as facilitating goal accomplishments, helping a group get organized, and giving directions, and relationship behaviors, including taking an interest in workers as human beings and recognizing accomplishments. These two types of behavior may be combined differently by leaders.
Instead of focusing on the leader, the contingency approach shifts the focus toward how situational factors affect leadership. Typically researchers in this tradition will seek to specify the situational variables that will moderate different leadership approaches. Following this perspective, effective leadership is contingent on matching a leader’s style to the right setting.
A more recent perspective on leadership can be summarized under the label “new leadership approach,” referring to a number of approaches to leadership that emerged in the 1980s that focus on similar themes, although applying slightly different terms to describe the new kinds of leadership with which they are concerned: transformational leadership, charismatic leadership, visionary leadership, or simply leadership. Together these labels reveal a conception of the leader as someone who defines organizational reality through the articulation of a vision, based on a reflection of the organization’s mission and the values that will support it. The new leadership approach then depicts leaders as managers of meaning rather than in terms of an influence process.
An important intellectual impetus for the ideas associated with the new leadership approach derives from James M. Burns’s distinction between transactional and transformational leadership. Transactional leadership refers to the exchanges that occur between leaders and their followers in which the former offers rewards for compliance with his or her wishes. In Burns’s view the effectiveness of such leadership is limited to the implicit contract between leader and followers. The transformational leader raises the aspirations of his or her followers such that the leader’s and the followers’ aspirations are fused. Transformational leaders are able to engage their followers to achieve something of significance and also to morally uplift them. Charismatic leadership is often described in ways similar to transformational leadership. Charismatic leaders act in unique ways that have specific charismatic effects on their followers. The personal characteristics of a charismatic leader include being dominant, having a strong desire to influence others, being self-confident, and having a strong sense of one’s own moral values.
It has been argued that transformational and charismatic leadership were constructs of the late 20th century. The increasingly distributed nature of leadership combined with concerns about the dark sides of charisma has led to attempts to re conceptualize the notion of leadership. Important elements in these post-charismatic and post-transformational leadership models are truly distributed leadership in teams, learning from experience and failure, and leadership practice as more consciously made public and open to challenge and testing.
- M. Bass, Bass and Stogdill’s Handbook of Leadership: A Survey of Theory, Research and Managerial Applications (Free Press, 1990);
- M. Bass, Transformational Leadership (Ertbaum, 1998);
- Dail Fields, “Leadership Style: Developing a Leadership Style to Fit 21st-Century Challenges,” in 21st Century Management: A Reference Handbook, Charles Wankel, ed. (Sage, 2008);
- Beth Fisher-Yoshida and Kathy Dee Geller, Transnational Leadership Development: Preparing the Next Generation for the Borderless Business World (American Management Association, 2009);
- Elizabeth Kelley and Kevin Kelloway, “Remote Leadership,” in 21st Century Management: A Reference Handbook, Charles Wankel, ed. (Sage, 2008);
- G. Northouse, Leadership: Theory and Practice, 4th ed. (Sage, 2007);
- W. Parry and A. Bryman, “Leadership in Organizations,” in The Sage Handbook of Organization Studies, 2nd ed., S. R. Clegg, C. Hardy, T. B. Lawrence, and W. R. Nord, eds. (Sage, 2006);
- Patrizia Porrini, Lorene Hiris, and Gina Poncini, Above the Board: How Ethical CEOs Create Honest Corporations (McGrawHill, 2009);
- Angel Saz-Carranza, Sonia Ospina, and Alfred Vernis, “Leadership in Interorganizational Networks,” in 21st Century Management: A Reference Handbook, Charles Wankel, ed. (Sage, 2008);
- Storey, ed., Leadership in Organizations: Current Issues and Key Trends (Routledge, 2004);
- Yukl, Leadership in Organizations, 5th ed. (Prentice Hall, 2001);
- Zaleznik, “Managers and Leaders: Are they Different?” Harvard Business Review (1977).
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