Understanding Leadership

Many people consider leadership to be an essentially work-based characteristic. However, leadership roles are all around us and not just in work environments.

Ideally, leaders become leaders because they have credibility, and because people want to follow them. Using this definition, it becomes clear that leadership skills can be applied to any situation where you are required to take the lead, professionally, socially, and at home in family settings. Examples of situations where leadership might be called for, but which you might not immediately associate with that, include:

  • Planning and organising a big family get-together, for example, to celebrate a wedding anniversary or important birthday;
  • Responding to an illness or death in the family, and taking steps to organise care or make other arrangements; and
  • Making decisions about moving house, or children’s schooling.

In other words, leaders are not always appointed, and leadership skills may be needed in many circumstances.

With apologies to Shakespeare, we might say that “some are born leaders, some achieve leadership, and some have leadership thrust upon them”.

But what exactly is a leader?

A leader can be defined fairly simply as ‘a person who leads or commands a group, organisation or country’.

This definition is broad, and could include both formal and informal roles—that is, both appointed leaders and those who emerge spontaneously in response to events.

In recent years, considerable evidence has emerged that the strongest organisations and groups tend to permit and actively encourage each member of the group or organisation to take the lead at the appropriate point. Organisations and families with particularly controlling leaders, by contrast, tend to be fairly dysfunctional.

Leadership, therefore, is in practice fairly fluid: leaders are made by circumstances. The crucial issue is that people are prepared to follow them at the right moment.

There is more about this in our page on What is a Leader?

People also struggle with the concept of how being a leader is different from being a manager. You may have heard the idea that ‘leaders do the right thing, and managers do things right’. This is a fairly delicate distinction, and many leaders are also managers (and vice versa). Perhaps the key difference is that leaders are expected to create and communicate a compelling vision, often associated with change. Managers, on the other hand, are perhaps more often associated with maintaining the status quo.

Our page on ‘Leadership is not Management’ provides more discussion and ideas about this.