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What is leadership?

What is leadership?
© University of Warwick
Here we provide a brief introduction to the main theories and debates about leadership.
The concept of ‘leadership’ is diverse and complicated, with no clear definition as to what it encompasses. Some attempt to define leadership at the individual level, focusing on images of ‘heroic’ leaders (Kotter, 1999), whilst others frame leadership as a social process which is dynamic and changes according to the situation (Burns, 1978: Yukl, 2006).
Research on leadership has a long history and has become increasingly sophisticated in recent years. Classical research on this topic fell into one of three general schools: traits theories, leadership styles and contingency theories of leadership. Traits theories seek to define generalisable traits of all successful leaders, sometimes based on studies of existing managers or so-called ‘great leaders’ of the past. The way these traits are defined varies, with some authors arguing that they are a result of inherited personality types or cognitive styles, and others emphasising more the possibility that leadership attributes can be learnt or developed through experience. Kirkpatrick and Locke (1991) for example define six attributes of successful leaders: drive; leadership motivation; honesty and integrity; self-confidence; cognitive ability and knowledge of the business.
Frameworks like this, which seek to define attributes of leaders, continue to be popular today. An example in healthcare is the Clinical Leadership Competency Framework developed by the Leadership Academy in the UK National Health Service. This sets out five ‘domains’ where aspiring clinical leaders need to prove their competency in order to perform as effective leaders. These include:
  • demonstrating personal qualities
  • working with others
  • managing services
  • improving services
  • setting direction.
Taken from the NHS Leadership Academy: Clinical Leadership Competency Framework.
Despite their popularity, traits models of leadership have been widely criticised. A key problem is agreeing on lists of traits, identifying them in practice and assessing their relationship to measures of success (or performance). A related issue, to which we shall return to later this week, is the problem of placing too much emphasis on ‘heroic’ individuals and failing to account for the context in which leadership roles are enacted.
Partly to address these concerns, a second classical strand of research has focused more on leadership styles and practices (as opposed to traits). Early work adopting this approach was influenced by the so-called human relations school of management. This emphasised the role of leaders in facilitating the cohesiveness and morale of work groups or teams. For example, the Michigan studies (Likert, 1961) identified a continuum of leadership styles ranging from so-called System 1 leadership (exploitative autocratic styles) through to System 4 leadership, characterised by democratic styles in which there is extensive trust and delegation. This study and many others (for example, Blake and Mouton’s ‘Managerial Grid’) also emphasised the performance benefits of more democratic and participative leadership styles (The Blake Mouton Managerial Grid: Five Leadership Styles).


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Although appealing, the research on leadership styles was also strongly criticised for being overly prescriptive (‘a one size fits all’ approach) and failing to understand the importance of context. This criticism led to an alternative strand of research known as contingency or situational theories of leadership (Fielder, 1964).
A highly cited example of contingency theory is Hersey and Blanchard’s (1988) situational theory of leadership. This introduced a number of additional factors which might shape the performance of leaders, including the needs of subordinates (their ‘readiness’ to be led), characteristics of the situation (such as the nature and complexity of tasks) and leadership styles. The resulting framework suggests that different styles might fit different contexts, with managers able to adjust or change their style accordingly. Hence, a ‘directing’ (or telling) style is most relevant in situations where employees are inexperienced and task oriented (a high readiness for leadership) and where there are weak social relationships of trust between leaders and subordinates. By contrast, a ‘supporting’ style applies when the exact opposite is true, where employees able to work autonomously and where social relationships are more developed. The implication is that there are many pathways to effective leadership and that one style does not fit all situations.

Transformational leadership

A more recent strand of work on leadership has sought to emphasise the difference between so-called ‘transactional’ and ‘transformational’ leadership (Burns, 2004). Implied here is that true leadership is transformational, about setting a vision, facilitating change by inspiring and motivating people and guiding organisations towards successful change. By contrast, transactional leadership is associated more with the operational tasks of managing organisations, rather than changing them.
There is empirical evidence that transformational leaders are likely to be more effective and produce higher levels of employee satisfaction than transactional leaders. It is also suggested that there is a direct relationship between transformational leadership and organisational innovation (Jung, et al., 2003). These results appear to be replicated across a number of countries and cultures. For example, studies investigating leadership in over 60 cultures determined that the outstanding leadership described in all situations was transformational leadership.

Management and leadership

These distinctions have led to additional questions about the difference between ‘management’ and ‘leadership’? Some suggest leadership and management can be used interchangeably as concepts, as effective managers must also be leaders.
Others however see leadership and management as quite distinct, associated mainly with ‘transactional’ leadership styles. According to this view, managers enforce their formal authority to encourage performance through punishment or reward (Yukl, 2006). By contrast, leaders are assumed to influence people’s thoughts and values and motivate them to work towards a shared future vision (Kotter, 1999). Leaders are seen as encouraging and implementing change by breaking down organisational barriers to move the company forward. Managers, on the other hand, encourage people to work within existing constraints to maintain stability and consistent organisational performance (Burns, 2004).
Whilst managers provide essential tasks such as budgeting and organising resources, leadership produces organisational change and innovative thinking. This approach therefore emphasises a difference between leadership and management skills, while recognising that both may be needed. In order to be effective, organisations need leaders who demonstrate strong management and strong leadership skills.

Challenges and problems with leadership theory

The problem of ignoring the organisational and environmental context when studying leadership is one of the major criticisms of the leadership theories. The reliance on the image of the heroic individual leader has led to a lack of consideration about emergent or informal leaders within an organisation (Yukl, 2006). In papers discussing transformational leadership, group or organisational success is usually attributed to the actions of the formal leader, something which is not reflected in the reality of modern organisations which usually have multiple leaders. The consideration of context or the existence of informal, emergent or shared leadership has until recently been neglected (we will return to this issue in later steps).
Concerns have also been raised about the evidence base. It is frequently argued that leadership is a fundamental component in ensuring effective organisational performance and that management alone will not suffice for the adaptation and survival of an organisation. Leadership effectiveness is often evaluated by looking at market share, profits and stakeholder values in commercial firms, or other outcomes such as clinical quality, safety and efficiency in organisations such as hospitals. In a later step, we will review some of this evidence in the context of clinical leadership.
Measuring leadership in this way relies on an assumption that there is a direct relationship between leadership effectiveness and performance outcomes. However, the way in which leadership outcomes are measured and assessed, or even whether leadership actually has a tangible effect on organisational performance is still fiercely debated. Assuming that leadership is a complex social process, it cannot easily be studied in isolation, while what is perceived as being effective leadership will vary with time, follower perceptions and the social context. This has led to the view amongst some researchers that the impact of leadership is best understood as operating discreetly and indirectly, creating an appropriate working culture, formulating future strategy and providing a symbolic figurehead.


Burns, J.M. (2004) Transforming Leadership. New York: Grove Press.
Fiedler, F.E. (1964) A contingency model of leader effectiveness. Advances in Experimental Social Psychology, 1: 149–190.
Hersey, P. & Blanchard, K.H. (1988) Management and Organizational Behavior. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall.
Jung, D.I., Chow, C. & Wu, A. (2003) The role of transformational leadership in enhancing organizational innovation: Hypotheses and some preliminary findings. The Leadership Quarterly 14: 525-544.
Kirkpatrick, S.A. & Locke, E.A. (1991) Leadership: Do traits matter? The Executive, 5 (2): 48-60.
Kotter, J.P. (1999) What Leaders Really Do? Boston: Harvard Business School Press.
Likert, R (1961) New Patterns of Management. New York: McGraw-Hill.
Yukl, G.A. (2006) Leadership in Organisations. London: Prentice Hall.
© University of Warwick
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