Leadership is more than just traits or behaviors to emulate. The Oxford Dictionary defines leadership as the action of leading a group of people or an organization, or the state or position of being a leader (Waite, 2012). Technically, this is correct. However, this definition is just a starting point of what leadership is.
If you asked almost any business expert or guru, they would likely provide you with a much more substantial or robust definition. Their definitions will also vary on whether or not they are a management expert or a leadership expert. For example, Dr. Peter Drucker, a rather famous management consultant, says that “The only definition of a leader is someone who has followers” (Drucker, 1996). On the other hand, Dr. Warren Bennis, often regarded as a pioneer in the field of Leadership studies, suggests that leadership “is the capacity to translate vision into reality” (Booher, 1991).
A simple internet search will demonstrate that there are hundreds of ways to define leadership. A somewhat common theme in leadership circles is that leadership is the art of motivating a group of people to achieve a common goal. I have personally defined leadership as “having the courage to do the right thing; by seizing the moment and affecting positive change; especially when others either cannot or do not.” So which one is correct, and why is having a definition so important?
The truth is that all of these definitions are correct to some degree. The reason the definition of leadership varies so much is that leadership is a lot of different things, at any given time, to many different people. The search for that perfect definition is on-going. What differentiates the numerous definitions tends to be nothing more than the ideas pulled from the various leadership philosophies and theories.
Definitions are important. We define things so everyone can understand the essential nature of what we are talking about or reading about. Defining leadership is necessary because it helps us develop a shared understanding of the discipline and the elements being discussed. This comes in handy when reviewing materials from individuals who are educated in something outside of leadership specifically. For example, management is not leadership. That fact is well-established. So, having a solid leadership definition will help you to identify management themes and ideas versus leadership ones. The same holds for the various leadership theories. Having this kind of understanding can help you better navigate advice and direction as well as how various philosophies might come into play.
Many leadership theories have been formulated to help better define and describe what leadership is and how it can work. Here, we will explore several of these leadership philosophies to get a better understanding of why the variety exists. And finally, I will provide some insight and perspectives to consider regarding such theories and definitions and then offer a simple way to utilize them all. Consider this a brief training session.
The Trait Theory
Trait Theory is one of the oldest modern leadership theories (Northouse, 2016). Trait Theory is primarily focused on a leader’s traits and characteristics. These include intelligence, self-confidence, determination, integrity, and sociability; features often associated with well-known leaders. This theory also suggests that leadership is a function of nature and that leaders are born “great” and inherited their leadership traits from their parents (Shriberg, Kumari, & Shriberg, 2005). This theory supports the idea that leaders are gifted or special. As a result, studies primarily focus on the leader and what differentiates that leader from the follower.
Being one of the oldest leadership theories, Trait Theory has a substantial amount of research data to sift through. Much of that research supports the theory rather than disputes it (Northouse, 2016). Additionally, and due to that research, the theory has provided various leadership benchmarks that have carried over into other approaches.
However, there are more cons than pros to this theory. For example, the list of traits that great leaders have continues to grow, so there is no fixed or definitive list of leadership traits (Northouse, 2016). The theory also fails to take specific situations into account and has a hard time describing how any such characteristics might impact the outcome of a team or organization.
Arguably the biggest cons to this theory are based on the educational element and the data itself. For instance, if traits are really fixed or inherited, and if leadership is trait-based, then there really would be no point in leadership education or training. Furthermore, we now know that much of the data has been subject to interpretation and is not always based on reliable research (Northouse, 2016).
Skills Theory is another leader-centric theory. However, instead of being based on traits, it is more focused on competencies. Researchers sought to discover what skills and abilities might make a great leader or make an existing leader more effective.
There were two primary theories that came out of the skills approach. The first was Katz’s three-skill approach (Northouse, 2016). This model suggested that an effective leader would need technical, human, and conceptual skills. Essentially, a great leader would have a proficiency to do the work, be able to work with others and have the ability to work with a variety of concepts and ideas.
The second theory created under the skills approach was Mumford’s skills model of leadership (Northouse, 2016). This model defined five primary competencies of effective leadership. These were individual attributes, leadership outcomes, experience, and environmental influences. With that, it suggests that the effectiveness of a leader all depends on how that leader’s competencies are impacted by that leader’s attributes, experiences, and environment.
The appeal of this approach was that leadership became available to almost anyone. If someone can develop and learn, then they can learn leadership skills. This is a great advantage to organizations as a whole. Additionally, it provided a solid structure for leadership development, which provided a level of duplication.
The cons of this theory are two-fold. First, Skills theory is not precise or predictable. This means that the results of any leadership development or training could not be guaranteed. The second downside is that skills theory, from an organizational standpoint, is generally considered useful but uncertain.
Much like how it sounds, Behavioral Theories are rooted in the specific behaviors a leader might have. These behaviors might include how they act in general, how they act towards followers, the things they do, and so on. In this line of thinking, a leader’s behavior would ultimately determine that leader’s success and potential to influence.
Such theories have a decent appeal because behaviors can often be temporarily conditioned. As a result, many leadership development programs are based on behavioral methods. Unfortunately, that’s also probably why the results of many leadership development programs don’t last or why some have decided that such programs don’t work (Northouse, 2016). Behavioral theories are neither refined nor reliable. Aside from the lack of consistency, such theories are usually not associated with specific outcomes and don’t prove anything considered to be necessary.
The “Hersey-Blanchard Situational Leadership Theory” was developed by Paul Hersey and Ken Blanchard. This theory is often prized because it solves some of the problems regarding previously listed theories (Northouse, 2016). For example, it does take specific situations into account and is more follower-oriented.
As a result, leaders that subscribe to Situational Leadership will utilize various leadership styles according to specific situations. However, instead of being leader-centric, it is follower-centric. The premise is that different conditions and different team members require different leadership approaches.
This theory is arguably the most widely accepted leadership theory due in large part to the fact that it is easy to understand. It is also considered “prescriptive.” As a result, it is used in a lot of training and development programs (Northouse, 2016).
Unfortunately, it’s not well-researched, and the research that has been presented doesn’t provide strong evidence to support it (Northouse, 2016). Other critiques include that it does not account for demographics, it is somewhat ambiguous or unclear, and it fails to account for the differences between one-on-one versus group settings. Ultimately, the theory is often considered by experts as being too broad.
Another leadership theory worth mentioning is the Path-Goal Theory. This theory focuses specifically on follower motivation, which is thought to increase follower performance and satisfaction (Northouse, 2016). With this theory, the leader adjusts their leadership approach specifically to best fit the follower’s motivational needs. This is great for the follower as it requires little change or adjustment on their part.
This theory has some apparent drawbacks though. To begin with, this approach would require the leader to have a strong understanding of the goals of the individual followers – if they would be forthcoming enough to share (Northouse, 2016). And while this theory is seemingly follower-oriented, it is actually leader-oriented because it requires the adjustments to come from the leader specifically. Ultimately, this theory is not clear and has been challenging to use in practice. Not surprisingly, research does not support it.
Transformational leadership is currently the most popular perspective in leadership theory. It’s about being a role model and making a real change (Shriberg, Kumari, & Shriberg, 2005). Transformational Leadership is defined as a leadership approach that causes a change in individuals and social systems (Northouse, 2016).
Considered the “intellectual” form of leadership, transformational leaders create positive change in their followers and ultimately develop their followers into leaders (Northouse, 2016). Additionally, there is usually a focus on intrinsic motivations and follower-development and is vision or goal-oriented. This approach is often generalized and can be taught to almost anyone.
Transformational leadership holds some distinct limitations, though. For instance, it’s hard to measure, it often lacks clarity, and it doesn’t actually “transform” people (Northouse, 2016). Other critiques include the idea that it can sometimes be abused or is personality-driven. On a similar note, the transformational leader often lacks attention to detail regarding operations.
Other Resources and Insights
The Transactional Leadership Theory is a common approach to leadership in many organizations that are not aware of their leadership alternatives. This is because transactional leadership is mostly about control and compliance via rewards and punishments (Northouse, 2016). The style is often used by those seeking order, and it is considered a form of organizational barter (Shriberg, Kumari, & Shriberg, 2005).
This style of leadership is generally frowned upon by leadership experts because, in practice, it looks like management (Ciulla, 2004). This style virtually eliminates individuality, stifles innovation, ensures followership, and tends to focus more on the consequences rather than the rewards.
Ethical Leadership Theories could be and often are, touched on in other theories such as Transformational Leadership (Ciulla, 2004). However, it is differentiated here due to several key points. These are focus, perception, and relativity.
There is still much to learn about ethics. Ethical leadership theories are few and far between, and the empirical data is lacking (Northouse, 2016). By definition, ethics are behaviors regarding right and wrong. In theory, ethical leadership is excellent because the central focus is on the “greater good” and pays particular attention to both conduct and character.
Even with the lack of research, we understand that the basic premise is about being an example. Leaders establish the climate of their organization. As Kouzes and Posner would say, they model the way and set a personal example of what they expect of others (Kouzes & Posner, 2012). However, as Barbara Kellerman would likely point out, both conduct and character should not be assumed to be “good” (Kellerman, 2004). Being rigid, intemperate, callous, or even corrupt are all examples of this contrast.
Perceptions vary. Ethical leadership influences the environment by demonstrating both acceptable and appropriate behaviors (Northouse, 2016). This might sound good at first, but a seemingly moral action can also be unethical. What this means is that it can vary from person to person but that it can also include unethical, hypocritical, and even ethically neutral types of influence (Shriberg, Kumari, & Shriberg, 2005).
On the surface, any leader would be prized for having a strong moral or ethical position. However, leaders must be aware of the contrast. Killing people in the name of your god is an excellent example of this. What is considered either good or bad can vary based on upbringing, society, or even position? Another example of this might be in the idea that Adolf Hitler or Joseph Stalin probably thought they were doing the right thing or that mafia members commit crimes while remaining loyal to their families. Regardless, ethics should always be considered when evaluating our leadership and the leadership of others.
Each of these theories brings something valuable to the table, and there many more theories and perspectives that we could have considered in this evaluation. I often advocate a hybrid approach to leadership with a heavy lean towards Transformational Leadership. We must remember that we can utilize the information even if we disagree with some of it because then we can recognize what not to do. For example, we can acknowledge that the Trait Theory is flawed and still take inventory of the traits that we aim to accentuate. We can also hone our skills and appreciate that while Skills Theory doesn’t guarantee a reliable result, it still provides us with a map to work from.
The other theories are no different. We need to keep an eye on our behaviors and recognize that we do model the way. We also need to appreciate that everyone is different and that they will respond differently in different situations. Additionally, we too, will react and act differently in different circumstances, and different situations will likely call for varying responses or leadership styles. Furthermore, understanding that we all have different motivations is helpful. Any reminder that a follower is vital to the success of our leadership is a good thing.
I am not a fan of Transactional Leadership, but I recognize that individual situations can call for it. When those situations arise, I can be mindful of what I don’t like about it and work to ensure that I avoid those elements. This has a lot to do with my ethical background, but I also recognize that there are many people that share neither my ethics nor my morals. This reminder helps me remain follower-focused and reorients me to my real goal of helping others live their best life.
If I could choose between having ten followers or ten leaders on my team, I am going to select the ten leaders every time. I like the idea of transformational leadership because I would prefer to empower ten followers to become leaders. I prefer remaining vision-oriented and taking a steady approach to methodically set and achievable goals. However, I am aware that this approach is personality-driven and that I might lack attention to detail from time to time. This reminder keeps me in check and working towards self-improvement.
Leadership is not all black and white. If there is a plus somewhere, there is likely going to be a negative somewhere else. This is similar to our victories. If we have one, there was probably a sacrifice that had to be made. A solid leader must keep this in mind at all times and live in that contrast. We must remember that we cannot address a challenge unless we are willing to face that challenge. This is especially true when we consider who we are as leaders.
For that reason, I am a big fan of self-assessments and critical reflection. I do not have to agree with the methodologies or even the outcomes to get something out of them. For example, I recognize that the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator test is not supported by science and is essentially a glorified horoscope (Pittenger, 1993). Of course, if we try, we can find a few nuggets of truth in our horoscopes from time to time.
The way I see it is that even if I disagree, I have still learned something valuable. We just have to remember that all the time invested in learning is essentially wasted without an equal amount of time invested in critical reflection. To demonstrate what I mean, I will share my experience surrounding three such assessments that I have recently taken. These assessments are the Leadership Trait Questionnaire (LTQ), the Skills Inventory, and the Blake and Mouton Leadership Inventory.
Leadership Trait Questionnaire
The LTQ is designed to measure the personal characteristics of leadership. When I took this assessment, I discovered that my perception of self was rather low. I am somewhat hard on myself, but I had rated myself considerably lower than what my colleague had rated me. To be clear, I had rated myself lower on Self-Confidence, Self-Assuredness, Friendliness, and Conscientiousness. As I had mentioned, I am somewhat hard on myself. Taking this assessment helped me see that perhaps I am too hard on myself and that maybe I need to give myself some credit from time to time. It also provided a decent reminder that I always have room to grow.
The Skills Inventory measures personal leadership skills and competencies. I have been working on my leadership skills for years, so it came as no surprise that I had scored a “high range” on Technical, Human, and Conceptual Skills. Then I retook the test. This time, I put myself into a variety of stressful and complicated hypothetical situations that would test my skills. I scored lower the second time. That’s valuable information because situationally, it reminds me that even our most valued skills can be hindered when faced with adversity. This was a solid reminder as to why we practice and hone. It was also a fantastic reminder that our perceptions of self can sometimes be bias.
Blake and Mouton Leadership Inventory
This assessment helps point you towards your specific leadership style. I have taken plenty of these throughout my years of leadership study, but even this one provided some valuable insight. For instance, I found that my answers were often situational. This pays homage to the Situational Leadership Theory. I also found that many of my answers would need to be qualified if I were being asked in person. This tells me that perhaps I need to be a little more concise in both my thoughts and explanations. Of course, it was also a reminder that interpretation works both ways. I found some of the questions vague. I did not appreciate that in the test, and it reminded me that my followers likely don’t appreciate it when I’m vague either.
The discipline of leadership continues to evolve. New theories and approaches continue to emerge as we strive to find that best approach. As you can see, there are many reasons why the Oxford Dictionary’s definition of leadership seems to lack the flair that such a description probably deserves. Leadership is a lot of things to a lot of different people for many various reasons, so it should come as no surprise that we would see such variety when attempting to define it.
Each theory and perspective can provide us some valuable insight if we allow it. This includes even the outdated or relatively unresearched aspects. The key is that we examine the material and attempt to apply it in a way that strives for greatness for our organizations, our followers, and ourselves.
As we attempt to define what leadership is, we can also determine what leadership means. Understanding this is invaluable on numerous levels and ultimately helps us improve both personally and professionally. Furthermore, when we can better define and describe what we expect and model, duplication becomes possible. Only then can we truly become the transformational leaders we should be striving to be.
Your ultimate leadership definition, style, and ideas are going to be more robust and more effective when you take the time to examine and implement what you agree with and to appreciate and learn from what you don’t. In my opinion, the best leaders know who they are and who they want to be. These same leaders are also well aware of what they are not and who they don’t want to be. Such understanding requires examination of the material, critical reflection, and continual assessment. Good leaders are perpetual students of the discipline. So the question then becomes “Are you this type of leader?”
Want to explore more? Check out these following articles:
Interested in some great Leadership Books?
Booher, D. (1991). Executives portfolio of model speeches for all occasions. Englewood Cliffs (New Jersey): Prentice Hall.
Ciulla, J. B. (2004). Ethics, the heart of leadership. Westport, CT: Praeger.
Drucker, P. F. (1996). Your Leadership Is Unique Good news: There is no one “leadership personality.”. Christianity Today International/LEADERSHIP, XVII(4), 54.
Kellerman, B. (2004). Bad Leadership: What It Is, How It Happens, Why It Matters. Harvard Business Review Press.
Kouzes, J. M., & Posner, B. Z. (2012). The leadership challenge: how to make extraordinary things happen in organization. San Francisco: The Leadership Challenge.
Northouse, P. G. (2016). Leadership: theory and practice. Los Angeles, Calif.: SAGE.
Pittenger, D. J. (1993). The Utility of the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator. Review of Educational Research, 63(4), 467–488. https://doi.org/10.3102/00346543063004467
Shriberg, A., Kumari, R., & Shriberg, D. G. (2005). Practicing leadership: Principles and applications. Hoboken, NJ: J. Wiley & Sons.
Waite, M. (2012). Paperback Oxford English dictionary. Oxford: Oxford University Press.