The term leader is often accompanied by words like ‘power’ and ‘authority’. Alexander the Great, Abraham Lincoln, and Queen Elizabeth are some renowned figures known to have personified the term.
While these well-known personalities deserve due respect for their historic successes, leadership can’t be limited to a hierarchical position, seniority, title, or personal attribute. Speaking in today’s organisational terms, leadership isn’t limited to a certain pay grade.
Before we dive into answering the broad question of what is leadership? let’s take a look at some common modern perceptions of leadership.
Top Three Leadership Theories
Leadership theories refer to various schools of thought that have attempted to explain how certain people become leaders. The three most popular leadership theories include:
The behavioural theory of leadership proposes that the success of leaders is determined by their behaviours rather than their natural attributes. The proponents of this theory advocate that the only path to becoming a memorable leader is to observe the actions — or behaviours — of the past leaders.
This means that one can learn how to become a leader and acquire skills eventually, despite not possessing the leadership qualities from birth. Indirectly, this theory suggests that anyone can become a leader.
Also known as the Great Man Theory, trait theory connotes that leaders are born leaders and possess innate traits that cannot be taught. Since they have particular traits one requires to be a leader since birth, they deserve to be in power.
The trait theory is in stark contrast to the behavioural theory, as the former believes leadership cannot be taught; a leader is born a leader. Abraham Lincoln, the former President of the United States, is the most common example of a born leader.
The management theory is often applied to the leaders in business establishments. This theory emphasizes the management and organizational skills of a leader. Additionally, it introduces the idea of transactional leadership.
Transactional leadership is based on reward and punishment. When an employee meets the monthly goal, they are rewarded. When they fail, they are punished. So, the foundational idea of the management theory is that rewards are the driving force of all humans, motivating them to complete their tasks.
According to Dwight D. Eisenhower, former U.S. President, “leadership is the art of getting someone else to do something you want done because he wants to do it”. Warren Bennis, renowned American author, believes that “leadership is the capacity to translate vision into reality”.
Most leadership definitions point towards a specific goal that every leader desires to achieve. In Eisenhower’s definition, a leader wants something to be done. Bennis points to a particular vision a leader longs to translate into reality.
Leaders are people with a clear vision. The biblical proverb “where there is no vision, the people perish” suggests this. So does the leadership definition from Bill Gates that states, “as we look ahead into the next century, leaders will be those who empower others”. A leader empowers his or her followers to produce an outcome.
Not only does a leader have a vision, but also has the skills to fulfil the task in hand. For example, a business leader knows which of their employees can complete a project successfully — they know each employee’s qualities.
Furthermore, a leader holds the power to maximize the efforts of their followers to achieve a shared goal.
Great leaders do not necessarily use coercion as a tool — this sets them apart from bandits who also have the power to get an act done, but forcefully. Instead, top leaders depend on effective interactions and fulfilling relationships.
A successful leader, therefore, builds a fruitful connection with each of their employees. Consequently, they incite interest towards the task and they make the work intrinsically interesting. As a result, everyone willingly accepts the responsibility assigned to them.
What is leadership, then? Leadership is the capability to successfully achieve a goal by effectively deploying a capable workforce and making the result worthwhile.
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