Practicing Leadership

When formal interest in the study of leadership first began in the 19th and early 20th centuries, the so-called “great man” theory, which assumed that certain individual characteristics or traits could be found in leaders but not in non-leaders and that those characteristics could not be developed but must be inherited, was quite popular and many assumed that leaders were simply “born and not made”.  As time passed, however, the consensus within the community of leadership scholars and consultants shifted significantly to the current working proposition that while some appeal do indeed appear to be natural leaders from birth it is nonetheless possible for many others who have sufficient desire and willpower to develop into leaders by following a continuous process of work, self-study, education, training and experience. 

Stogdill observed “there are almost as many different definitions of leadership as there are persons who have attempted to define the concept” and there is no apparent limit to the creativity of researchers, management consultants and actual practitioners in devising definitions and conceptions of leadership.  Bass, one of the most well-known of the modern scholars and pundits on leadership, argued that leadership was a “universal phenomenon” that could be defined and described as “an interaction between two or more members of a group that often involves a structuring or restructuring of the situation and the perception and expectations of the members”.  A survey of other definitions and conceptualizations of leadership uncovers several common themes: the leader as a “person”, including his or her traits and personality characteristics; the leader as an instrument of facilitating the needs and desires of the group of followers; leadership as an emerging effect of interaction; leadership as a process of influencing change in the conduct of people and motivating them to embrace and strive for specific goals; and leadership as a set of specific acts and behaviors that a person engages in while serving as a leader and attempting to direct and coordinate the work of his or her followers.

In practice, leadership is more than just personal traits and attributes or issuing directives from a list and, in fact, the reality is that leaders must be able to mix creative visioning with the often difficult and time-consuming tasks that must be completed to engage followers and enlist their support to move their organizations, and themselves, through turbulent changes.  Practicing leadership begins by recognizing that four primary factors must be considered:

  • The “leader”, who must understand who he or she is and what he or she knows and realize that his or her success is dependent on the leader’s ability to build trust and confidence among the followers and convince them to follow the leader’s directives.
  • The “followers”, who all have their own needs and require different styles of leadership that can only be identified if a leader is attuned to understanding human nature and the factors behind the needs, emotions and motivations of the followers.
  • The form and content of “communications” between the leader and his or her followers, which is interactive (i.e., two-way), frequently non-verbal and central to the development and maintenance of effective relationships.
  • The “situation” or “context”, which determines the actions that should be taken by the leader and the style that the leader should employ.

Each of these factors is subject to a variety of forces that may impact the choices that a leader makes regarding his or her behaviors.  For example, while the idea that a person must have certain inherited traits in order to be a leader has fallen into disrepute, the personality characteristics of the leader will invariably come into play as he or she accesses problems and opportunities and decides what steps need to be taken in working with followers.  Other forces that will likely be relevant include the skills and experiences of the followers and how they interact with one another; the history, internal culture and structure of the organization; the societal culture in which the organization operates; and competitive conditions, particularly the strategies being used by peer organizations to motivate their employees.  Leaders must approach these factors, and the forces that influence them, with a solid analytical framework that can be referenced from time-to-time to ensure that they are paying attention to the things that really matter.  A framework suggested by surveying the literature on leadership might include several elements discussed in more detail in this Part: the requisite “skill set”, which should be constructed and nurtured by reference to the appropriate performance imperatives for executive leadership; the roles and activities expected from an effective leader; personality traits and attributes which can be learned and perfected by persons aspiring to leadership positions; and styles of leadership, which encompass the strategies used by leaders to engage with their followers.

Emphasis on “performance imperatives” was stressed by Zaccaro and Klimoski, who counseled leaders about the importance of remembering the context of their actions as leaders and suggested that this could be accomplished by continuously assessing and developing the following categories of skills: cognitive, social, personal, political, technological, financial and senior staffing.  Specific questions for leaders include:   

  • Does the leader have the requisite cognitive skills to effectively scan expansive and relatively unstructured external environments, process and make sense of the information collected from those scanning activities, and use that information to solve problems and forge long-term strategies?
  • Does the leader have the social skills and competencies that are necessary and appropriate to forge and manage the relationships that are relevant to his or her position within the organizational hierarchy? 
  • Does the leader have the personal skills and attributes necessary for timely and skillful execution of activities such as career and reputation management and acquisition of authority and influence? 
  • Does the leader have the requisite political skills for acquisition of power, including powers of persuasion; timely and judicious use of power, including the ability to handle and resolve conflicts and build coalitions?
  • Does the leader have the skills necessary for coping with the dramatic and sweeping effects that technological advances have had on the way organizations operate and compete and the operational environment in which leaders must operate? 
  • Does the leader have the skills and tools necessary to successfully develop, implement, monitor and adjust long- and short-term financial goals and objectives and strategies? 
  • Does the leader seek and hire candidates for positions at the senior staffing level in the organization, including other members of the executive team when the leader is the CEO, who possess, or can easily and quickly acquire, the skills, dispositions and capabilities required to respond appropriately to the demands associated with the above-described performance imperatives?

While leaders can be distinguished from managers, leaders nonetheless are responsible for a number of the same functions typically categorized as “managerial” such as setting goals and designing strategic plans to achieve those goals, communicating directives to other members of the organization, overseeing execution of the organizational strategy and setting guidelines for motivating organizational members and assessing their performance.  The specific roles and activities of a particular leader will vary depending on where he or she is located within the organizational hierarchy and will also be influenced by other factors such as the type of business engaged in by the organization, the environmental conditions that the organization is facing, the stage of the organization’s development, and the leader’s role in the launch of the organization (e.g., a “founder”).  However, all leaders, regardless of their position or other circumstances, should be prepared to engage in certain core roles and activities including selecting and defining goals and objectives for the organization and designing strategic plans to achieve those goals and objectives; communicating ideas about their vision for the organization and providing directions to other members of the organization regarding actions to be taken to realize the vision; designing and implementing an  effective organizational structure that promotes efficient flow of information and collaboration among members of the organization; implementing human resources management practices that support their vision and provide members of the organization with access to training necessary to maintain and improve the skills required for them to positively participate in the execution of the vision; and engaging in behaviors that support organizational members and enhance their feelings of personal worth and importance.

There is no doubt that extensive resources have been devoted to the search for traits and attributes of effective leaders and, as mentioned above, a person seeking to become a leader need not despair if it all does not seem to come naturally.  The question, or course, is identifying the specific personality traits and attributes that are most closely aligned with effective leadership.  Answers provided by researchers include emotional self-awareness; self-control; credibility; trustworthiness and integrity; adaptability; achievement orientation and ambition; a strong desire to influence and lead others and willingness to assume responsibility; the ability to use power intelligently to achieve desire goals; social awareness and empathy; social skills and ability to build relationships and promote cooperation; relevant cognitive ability (i.e., strong analytical ability, good judgment and the capacity to think strategically and multi-dimensionally); and a high degree of task-related knowledge about the organization, industry and technical matters.

Finally, the form and content of communications between the leader and the followers, and among the followers themselves, are heavily dependent on the leader’s chosen “leadership style”, which has been defined as “the manner and approach of providing direction, motivating people and achieving objectives”. While there a number of different models of leadership style, three fundamental dimensions are often represented: the leader’s approach to influencing the behavior of his or her followers; the manner in which decisions regarding the direction of the group are made, with a specific emphasis on the level of participation offered to followers; and the balance struck between goal attainment and maintaining harmony within the group (sometimes referred to as group “maintenance”).  For example, two alternative approaches to influencing the behavior of follows are the transactional leadership, which views the leader-follower relationship as a process of exchange, and transformational leadership, which relies on the leader’s ability to communicate a clear and acceptable vision and related goals that engender intense emotion among followers that motivates them to buy into and pursue the leader’s vision.  Contrasting styles for decision-making are found when distinguishing authoritarian (autocratic) and participative (democratic) leaders. The balance between goals and maintenance is emphasized in those models that analyze the degree to which the leader exhibits task and/or relationship orientations in his or her interactions with followers (e.g., “Country Club Leadership”, with a high concern for people and low concern for production, versus “Produce or Perish Leadership”, with a low concern for people and high concern for production).  While leadership styles are often introduced as static and fixed, the reality is that appropriate leadership styles do tend to change as time goes by and the leader must be able and willing to attempt to change his or her style or step aside in favor of someone else who is better prepared to provide the right style for the particular situation.

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