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What is leadership and does it matter?

What is leadership and does it matter?

Leadership describes a dynamic relationship between people in an organisation. It is not a one-way process as the popular press would have us believe and is strongly associated with other organisation factors such as power and culture. Most people prefer to attribute organisational success (or failure as in the banks) in terms of the actions of powerful leaders compared to external forces such as the environment over which we have little control. However the situation is more complex than this as the environment itself is shaped by the actions of leaders operating within all forms and scales of organisations.

How to define leadership

Leadership exists when a person exercises influence over others in an organisation and sets the everyday action and direction an organisation takes. To be effective a leader must understand the context in which she operates as well as the relationships between herself and the people who are led. Leadership is not a characteristic of an individual in isolation – leadership exists in the duality between leaders and followers.

Researchers and consultants have been trying various forms of definition of what constitutes and makes up a good leader and here are just a few.

* A Trait based view of leadership focuses on the make up of the leader in terms of general intelligence, intellectual ability or sociability.
* A Style perspective looks at what a leader does in terms of interaction with others inside and outside the organisation.
* Task oriented leadership approaches review how leaders organise the task – the scheduling and planning of resources and finance for example.
* Situational leadership was once a popular approach and is an extension of a contextual leadership style and meant that leaders have to adapt their style to the prevalent context and actual situation of the specific task.
* People oriented leaders busy themselves with the creation of environment conducive for action.
* Transformational leadership are those who transcend or seek to change the parameters of the situation – in vogue as it suits the aspirational managers and consultants buzzing around large corporations at the moment.

Participative in forms of leadership may be dependent on the context of the organisation with some professional groups such as teachers expecting to have their opinions polled and considered as do care workers. However when we look at the evidence for which of these above styles are more effective – actually there isn’t any – there is simply no clear evidence that any of these popular management styles are stronger. And whether leaders make any difference to organisational success is far from proved. There is also little evidence to decide whether any of the factors that make up so-called leaders are innate (leaders born) or acquired (made) and it may be that leadership is a happenstance and the attributes of a good leader are constructed in hindsight.

What we can say is that to be effective a leader must account for the complex societal context she operates within and be adept at managing the relationships between herself and the people she leads. The ability and capacity to articulate a change and to construct a vision are the more value laden aspects of leadership and are important parts of the job description.

Leadership is very popular at the moment especially in the public sector where all sorts of leadership development programmes are being launched. No-one it seems wants to be just a manager any more – we all need to be leaders. But this is a false dichotomy in part as we need people in organisations that can run them and pick up the mess after the charismatic leaders have been moved on or pensioned off. ‘Managership’ is just as important as ‘Leadership’ perhaps more so but as a closing point you can be a leader without being a manager but to be an effective manager you probably do need to be a good leader.

Royston

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