Who Is A Leader And What Is Leadership?

A few years ago, there was a trend in organizing leadership training sessions. It seemed that even a cleaning manager can grow to be a leader. The hype has passed, so now is the time to understand whether leaders are really needed in such numbers as they were prepared for on courses.

Who Is A Leader And What Is Leadership? 

According to statistics, about 80% of employees are not engaged in their work and don't like what they do. Leadership attempts to address this challenge and help others find their inner motivation. Leadership is the process where one person influences a group of people to reach a common goal. The person who influences the group members is called a leader. This person has a high level of motivation and involvement to help others find meaning in their work. A leader is different from other team members because they are able to fulfill the basic needs of the group. Therefore, a leader performs four functions:

  1. Organizing people to achieve a result. This requires specific knowledge, skills, behavior models, and character traits.
  2. Realizing the vision and being able to translate it to their subordinates. A leader has to show and explain what the team's strategy is, where it is going, what is happening in the world, and how it affects the general plans. To understand this and explain it to others, the leader needs to have developed cognitive and communication skills.
  3. Gathering and organizing the team. People are herd animals: we fear rejection and exclusion. Therefore, it is expected from the leader to create and cultivate a sense of belonging and acceptance in the team.
  4. Providing safety. In the context of leadership, safety is expressing empathy, humanity, and caring for the "inner child" of employees and supporting them. A leader is needed where changes occur. They are most useful when it is necessary to overcome resistance to change and set a new course. This is the main difference between a leader and a manager. In a company or team where there are clear, understandable tasks, and everything works smoothly, there is no need for a leader. They can only disrupt the established order.

Is the Manager Always a Leader?

The manager does not always have to be a leader. There is no research that has shown that leaders achieve better results than ordinary managers. The ordinary manager strives for the status quo, does not question the strategic goal, and ensures tasks are accomplished. The leader challenges, questions goals, seek changes. For them, stability is a swamp. Normally a managerial position is appointed “from above” while the leadership position emerges due to followers - it is appointed “from below”. Let’s recall Mahatma Gandhi. He didn’t hold any formal position, but he was the one who represented India and the Indian people at the negotiations with the British in London. At the same time, the leader himself must be able to obey and, if necessary, follow others. There are also opposite situations. A person is appointed head of the department, but the team does not accept him. In this case, subordinates will carry out their tasks to earn a salary and even a bonus, but will not follow the leader. A good indicator: if you leave the company and start your own project, which former subordinates and colleagues join, then you are a true leader.

​​The Personality Trait Theory of Leadership

The gist: proponents of this approach believe that leaders possess a set of qualities that allow them to lead people. However, twentieth-century research calls this theory into question. There is a connection between certain personality traits and leadership positions, but it is impossible to form a universal set of characteristics. All leaders are different: some are extrovert, others introvert, some are calm and confident, and others emotionally unstable. Researchers try to create a definitive list of qualities that are attributed to leaders in scientific articles. Over time, these lists only grow—in recent reviews, the number of such qualities exceeds a hundred. Of course, there is no one who possesses all of these traits. Leadership as a set of personality traits is more of a combination of innate qualities and acquired skills. Some are born with slightly more, and some with slightly less. Therefore, the efforts that will have to be made to become a leader will be different for everyone. For example, a person cannot affect their own height. At the same time, studies show that the average height of a CEO is a couple of centimeters higher than in the population. Some researchers believe that we choose leaders like animals: the bigger the leader, the more willing the pack will follow him. Therefore, taller people will have an easier time achieving leadership positions.

Another study on identical twins separated at birth showed that our results are only 24% determined by inherited characteristics. Two people with an identical set of genes independently made the same choice: cars of the same make, wives of the same type, and similar food preferences. However, their career and personal achievements were completely different. Each person has an individual development trajectory. If you strive to develop a leader in yourself, compare yourself not with others, but with yourself yesterday - and change your behavior, worldview, and attitude towards it.

The Theory of Contextual Leadership

What it is about: leadership is viewed as a successful match of personality and context. When the context and environment change, different people become leaders due to their skills or behavior. Let's imagine a situation where the conductor is a formal and informal leader of the orchestra. He is respected and admired. He becomes the head of the theater, he succeeds in this position and is sent to the colony. He is placed in a new context where he loses his leadership position. But the management of the colony decides to prepare a musical concert and remembers our conductor because the good mood of the arriving management promises certain preferences. He becomes a leader again - now his success in the group and achieving the desired result depend on him. Thus, leaders are considered to be those who can adapt their behavior and style to the context and people with whom they interact. In any leadership interaction, there are always three variables: the leader himself; the people with whom the leader interacts - he must lead them; the context. Depending on the combination of these variables, the leader chooses a certain style of interaction. For example, a startup will need a democratic style and a system with a clear hierarchy - an authoritarian approach.

Situation Theory

What it's about: a leader is not judged by a set of personal qualities, episodes of biography, and psychological properties, but by how he behaves in a particular situation. According to one of the typologies, a person can control his behavior and demonstrate different leadership styles in various situations. Researcher Daniel Goleman identified the following styles: directive ("Do as I said"); benchmark ("Do as I do"); visionary ("Come with me"); friendly ("The most important thing is people"); democratic ("What do you think?"); coaching ("Try and learn"). Depending on the situation, the leader can set an example, give instructions, delegate decision-making, help colleagues develop, and focus on relationships, people, and their emotions. For example, in an emergency situation and crisis, the directive style works best, and in a situation of loss of orientation - the visionary. A good leader is able to work in no less than 4 styles. But one of these styles will dominate the others, that is, prevail in behavior. For one person, the dominating style may be directive, for another - democratic. All other styles have to be "educated" in oneself. Good leaders are distinguished by the ability to feel which style is required in a particular situation and to quickly switch between them. The decision is usually made on the basis of intuition and experience, not reasoning and calculations. If you constantly go against your nature and act as the situation dictates, not your personal feelings, you will spend more energy. I recommend sticking to the context in which your "native" skills are most relevant. For example, if you are an introvert by nature and love to solve complex analytical tasks, sales are unlikely to suit you. But in the analytical department, you will be able to show yourself. At the same time, it is great to be able to quickly switch and use "not your own" skills - for example, at the meeting, to argue your proposal to the public.

Transactional Theory, or Exchange Theory

What it's about: a leader is someone who is able to meet the needs of their group. There is an exchange between the leader and the group: the leader satisfies people's needs for recognition, security, and respect, and in return, they give their time, skills, efforts, and trust.

The Theory of Transformational Leadership

What it is: a leader influences their followers. They motivate, inspire, intellectually stimulate, and change their value system, and long-term goals. As a result of this influence, the group achieves extraordinary results, and the leader themselves changes not only their followers but also the organizational structure and corporate culture.

The Psychodynamic Approach

What it is: supporters of this approach assert that people are deeply irrational creatures. The selection of a leader is based on the unconscious, on deep needs for a protector and a strong personality. Supporters of this theory put a special emphasis on studying "toxic leadership". They try to understand why people follow those who can hardly be called models of honesty and ethical behavior.

The Identity Theory

What it's about: leadership development is seen as an evolution of self-awareness. A leader is someone who sees themselves as a leader and is recognized by others in that role. There is often a disconnect between how someone views themselves and how they are seen by others. For example, someone may be recognized as a leader, but have low self-esteem and not see themselves as such. Or an overly assertive employee may think they are a leader, but not actually be one. According to this theory, leadership development is about expanding the boundaries of what is allowed. That is, what the leader allows themselves to do and decide, and what is considered legitimate by their followers.

Why HR Should Know About Leadership Theories

HR's job is to create situations where people can show their leadership qualities. It's important to recognize employees who start to take on more responsibility and work not only for their own benefit but also to help their colleagues - those who exceed their role. Along with the business and direct managers, these employees should be given the opportunity to grow. And of course, no one should prevent the emergence of leaders. What Not to Do Modern leadership theories are quite abstract and describe the concept only in general terms. Therefore, I do not recommend using any of them as a template for testing a person's leadership qualities. At the hiring stage, it is difficult to determine whether an applicant will become a "leader" in the given context. Therefore, I want to warn against using questionnaires to determine leadership qualities when assessing candidates.

In a nutshell, leadership is a process that allows people to gain motivation and collectively move toward the desired result. A leader doesn't have to be a manager - they can achieve their goals in other ways. Often, teams have both a manager and a leader; depending on the context, the role of the leader can shift from one person to another. The theory of leadership is an understanding of how and why someone becomes a leader. There are about 60 such theories. Among the numerous theories of leadership, the following can be distinguished: leader trait theory, contextual leadership theory, social identity theory, situational leadership theory, skill theory, transactional theory, psychodynamic approach, great man theory, and identity theory. The challenge of finding a leader at the hiring stage is a difficult task. You can't predict how a candidate will act in a new context. Therefore, try to pay attention to those who have been successful in similar projects and situations. The role of a coach is to notice the manifestation of leadership qualities in employees and create situations in which they can fully develop them.