What Makes an Effective Leader?

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To survive in the twenty-first century, we are going to need a new generation of leaders—leaders, not managers. The distinction is an important one.

Leaders conquer the context—the volatile, turbulent, ambiguous surroundings that sometimes seem to conspire against us and will surely suffocate us if we let them—while managers surrender to it.

The leadership literature has a centuries-old theoretical heritage thanks to the valuable contributions of philosophers such as Aristotle, Plato, Confucius, Sun Tzu, Machiavelli and many others.

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Although the concept of leading has existed since times unknown, particularly in the context of politics, government, and religion, the word “leading” first appeared in the Oxford English Dictionary around 1225.

Currently, the Oxford English Dictionary defines leadership as “the action of leading a group of people or an organization” and a leader as “the person who leads or commands a group, organization, or country”.

By contrast, the literature on management is considered to be relatively younger, dating back to the early twentieth century. A straightforward definition of management is the “attainment of organizational goals in an effective and efficient manner through planning, organizing leading, and controlling organizational resources”.

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The definition of leadership and its difference from similar concepts such as management have long stirred researchers’ attention. The concept of management is relatively better-defined, and researchers generally agree upon managerial functions.

In addition to distinctions between the two concepts (such as the timing of their evolution), leadership is one of those “garbage-can ideas,” similar to communication or globalization, implying a plethora of different phenomena in organizations.

Leadership has been conceptualized as the ability to influence and motivate others for the accomplishment of a goal. According to Yukl (2013), no definition of leadership is more correct than the others as all of them are somehow subjective and arbitrary, but some definitions are more useful than others.

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He goes on to define leadership as “Leadership is the process of influencing others to understand and agree about what needs to be done and how to do it, and the process of facilitating individual and collective efforts to accomplish shared objectives”.

It is also not always clear how many people are needed to call someone a “leader.” The notion
of a leader is not confined to a specific context such as a nation, a large corporation or a small group of people. In the context of organization studies, work psychologists sometimes refer to a group of four to ten people in examining leadership.

Researchers study leadership from a variety of different perspectives depending on their methodological approach or how they define the concept. Until the 1960s, most of the theoretical work on leadership had focused either on a description of the leader rather than the relationship between leaders and followers or on the characteristics of an effective leader without considering the contextual cues.

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Specifically, there have been various approaches in the study of leadership and theory building with a different emphasis in explaining effective leadership such as

  • a) trait approach,
  • b) behavior approach,
  • c) power-influence approach,
  • d) situational approach,
  • and e) integrative approach, among others.

According to Yukl, each theory reflects a different approach to the study of leadership emphasizing the role of leaders’ characteristics, followers’ characteristics or the characteristics of the situation.

However, it is also possible to conceptualize leadership based on the type of constructs used to describe leaders such as an intraindividual process, a dyadic process, a group process, or an organizational process.

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Recent research has classified leadership approaches in terms of various thematic categories such as neo-charismatic theories, information processing theories, social exchange/relational leadership theories, dispositional/trait theories, diversity and cross-cultural leadership theories, follower-centric theories, behavioral theories, contingency theories, power and influence theories, strategic theories, biological approaches to leadership and identity-based leadership theories, among others.

The traditional traits approach to leadership (a person-based-who approach) emphasizes the role of personality, values, and individual skills in explaining effective leadership, implying that leaders are “born” rather than “made.”

Early research suggested that leaders tended to score higher on some characteristics such as intelligence, dominance, self-confidence, and knowledge of a task compared to non-leaders.

The behavior approach to leadership, which became prevalent during the 1940s and 1960s, was born out of the growing discontent with the simplistic traditional traits approach.

According to behavioral theories (a processbased-how approach), leadership effectiveness is determined by the degree to which a leader is capable of resolving conflicts, coping with demands, overcoming problems and identifying challenges and opportunities.

Leaders are either person or process-oriented, and the leader behavior could be altered through education and training. A similar distinction appears between a “consideration versus structure” approach where consideration refers to the extent a leader takes care of subordinates’ feelings and ideas, whereas structure implies a leader’s focus is on defining task roles.

The distinction between transactional and transformational leadership is akin to the consideration versus structure approach (except for the addendum of the notion of “charisma” in the former).

Transactional leaders focus on task requirements, whereas transformational leaders articulate a charming vision by challenging followers for higher aspirations. Although they vary in their sophistication and incorporation of increasingly more complicated ideas into the study of
leadership, all those theories rest on the assumption that effective leaders perform certain behaviors and share some common traits which drive success regardless of the situation.

The idea that certain situations require particular leader behaviors paved the way for contingency theories. A power-influence approach (a position-based-where approach) to leadership focuses on a leader’s influence and exercise of power (or different bases of power) to direct followers towards various goals.

A situational approach to leadership, mainly trending from the 1960s onward, emphasizes the role of contextual factors in effective leadership such as characteristics of followers, the type and size of the organization, the nature of the work and the environment.

An integrative approach includes more than one variable to explain the nature of leadership processes and the achievement of effective outcomes.

An example of an integrative approach is charismatic leadership, where the influence of a leader is explained by both the characteristics of the leader and the characteristics of the followers who are willing to engage in extra-role behaviors.

According to Mary Jo Hatch, among the many sources of power and control that individuals can draw on to influence others, the following are prominent :

a) personal characteristics or charismatic power,
b) expertise or knowledge, abilities, skills and so on,
c) coercion or the force of threat and use of fear,
d) control of scarce resources,
e) use of normative sanctions or cultural values and informal rules,
f) upward influence or the ability to access people in positions of power.

Warren Bennis listed several shared characteristics that leaders (of all size, shape, disposition, gender and time) share, including a guiding vision, passion, integrity, trust, curiosity and daring.

There is something special about these constituents of leadership; that they cannot be taught (by business schools of leadership development programs), but they should be learned. According to Bennis, the mechanistic and deterministic view produced the “organization man” who is a considerably logical, analytical, controlled, conservative and administrative social being.

However, modern society also needs a form of leadership that incorporates right-brain qualities such as intuition, synthesis, and artistry as well as conceptualization with those of the aforesaid left-brain qualities.

There is an increasing need for whole-brained people who are capable of combining right-brain and left-brain qualities without assuming a delineated structure of the mind. Such leadership requires learning to lead through a personal experience of leading.

As Gardner has finely expressed, the scholarly and practical interest in leadership is rooted in very humanitarian concerns such as the seemingly collective need for a leader in saving the day:

Why do we not have better leadership? The question is asked over and over. When we ask a question countless times and arrive at no answer, it is possible that we are asking the wrong question—or that we have misconceived the terms of the query.

Another possibility is that it is not a question at all but simply convenient shorthand to express deep and complex anxieties. It would strike most of our contemporaries as oldfashioned to cry out, “What shall we do to be saved?” And it would be time consuming to express fully our concerns about the social disintegration, the moral disorientation, and the spinning compass needle of our time. So we cry out for leadership.

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