Leadership Essay

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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.


  1. M. Bass, Bass and Stogdill’s Handbook of Leadership: A Survey of Theory, Research and Managerial Applications (Free Press, 1990);
  2. M. Bass, Transformational Leadership (Ertbaum, 1998);
  3. 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);
  4. Beth Fisher-Yoshida and Kathy Dee Geller, Transnational Leadership Development: Preparing the Next Generation for the Borderless Business World (American  Management  Association,  2009);
  5. Elizabeth Kelley and  Kevin Kelloway, “Remote  Leadership,”  in 21st Century Management: A Reference Handbook, Charles Wankel, ed. (Sage, 2008);
  6. G. Northouse, Leadership: Theory and Practice, 4th ed. (Sage, 2007);
  7. 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);
  8. Patrizia Porrini, Lorene Hiris, and Gina Poncini, Above the Board: How Ethical CEOs Create Honest Corporations (McGrawHill, 2009);
  9. Angel Saz-Carranza, Sonia Ospina, and Alfred Vernis,  “Leadership  in  Interorganizational  Networks,”  in 21st Century Management: A Reference Handbook, Charles Wankel, ed. (Sage, 2008);
  10. Storey, ed., Leadership in Organizations: Current Issues and Key Trends (Routledge, 2004);
  11. Yukl, Leadership in Organizations, 5th ed. (Prentice Hall, 2001);
  12. Zaleznik, “Managers and Leaders: Are they Different?” Harvard Business Review (1977).

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