Leadership is an interesting topic. Over the years, I’ve been in a number of leadership roles which have lead me to wonder about the topic. What makes someone a leader and why do people lead? This has been a question since the time of Plato, when it was realized that certain individuals stood out as a leader. Early thinkers thought leaders were born, not developed or trained, like Kings and such. The idea that leadership traits were inherent in some people’s blood is a concept that still is widely believed given the rise of political families in various countries like the Kennedys.
After WWII, scholars started exploring the idea that leadership was not trait based because individuals who were leaders in one situation may not be leaders in another. This observation lead researchers to look into effective behaviors. But in time, trait based leadership theory became back into vogue because researchers could observe people being leaders in different arenas or projects. The traits that they focused on covered intelligence, thinking of others, extraverted, being efficient, and an open mind. Researchers’ studies worked with small groups and changes over time, but results were a bit limited. This motivated some researchers to move away from studying just traits but to explore behavior theories in relation to leadership. Theories formed relating to leadership as situational, path-goal oriented, or just functional. These theories balance relationships in teams and goals for projects in different amounts depending on what leaders have to offer, team objectives, and the skills of the followers. While the idea that a leader sees to the needs of the group with the goal in mind of better effectiveness and/or cohesion is touched on by all the theories, it is a main focus of functional theory. Functionally, a leader will provide way to monitor, organize, setting standards, providing direction and motivation to the subordinates in a group.
Many researchers felt that past theories on leadership never really covered all the bases, so an integrated approach developed. This approach grouped the strengths of past ideas and added to them. A main proponent of the integrated approach was James Scouller with his “Three Levels of Leadership model”. In his model, he stressed that leaders need to develop a presence. The first two levels deal with “public” and “private” leadership when dealing with people in small groups or one-on-one situations. The third level works with the idea of “personal” leadership which focuses more on the internal aspects of leadership within the individual. Scouller’s research in this area mainly dealt with “leadership presence”, knowledge base and skill level. Two parts make up the “presence” aspect of his model which focused on one’s attitude towards subordinates and ethical relationships with subordinates. Both of these concepts became known as servant and authentic leadership. Neither are old ideas. Both just got some nice theories wrapped around them.
While many studies have been done to explore the give and take relationship between leaders and subordinates, some theories point out that there are “in” groups and “out” groups within subordinates. Leaders exchange with subordinates guidance, support and rewards for cooperation and performance to name a few. Studies have shown that leaders will pick those they see as being more experienced, willing to step up, and/or have similar backgrounds or interests. While not truly favoritism in its pure form, we’ve all seen this as favoritism. People in the in-group get pick for the choicest assignments or are given tasks they may not be the best suited for. If a leader is mindful of this, it will bring up a challenge for a leader to balance assignments so that all subordinates get opportunities to grow, be involved and not be resentful.
What makes a leader rise up? Is it because the person is ambitious and wants to get ahead? Or do they see a need in a group and want to help? Many traits are thought to be a factor in a person stepping up into leadership – not overly or under assertive, authenticity, extroverted, conscientious, emotionally stable, open to new experiences, first born or only child, trustworthy, teamwork, dominance, gender identity, intelligence (either emotional and/or brain power), narcissism, self awareness and motivation, flexible and good judgement, and drive. For many people, leadership for a person develops from life experience, personal philosophy, and general outlook.
Research has identified different styles of leadership ranging from authoritarian to free flowing. Usually a leader falls into one camp but the style a leader uses in one situation can be different from other situations. A critical situation will be handled better with an authoritative style while directing a team of people might be better handled with a democratic style which allows each member to shine in their own way and share in the decision process.
With all the talk of leadership in our society especially in this day and age, you would think that we as a society would emphasized teaching leadership in a formal way early in people’s development instead of some folks going for an MBA later on. And don’t get me wrong, there are areas in our culture that do stress leadership and building that skill like in the military and the nature awareness communities. But in general, from what I can tell, leadership is an activity many people fall into or are pushed into without any clue what they are doing. I find this odd given we as a society see leadership as a way to uplift others. I’ve seen some communities strive to do this and have some degree of success, but most of the time it doesn’t work that way, like in the corporate world. Is it because money is involved or that there can only be one vision so one leader? But groups need leaders at every level to be successful, even in business. The CEO can’t be involved in everything. Otherwise the business doesn’t grow. This is a growing pain point for many small business, too.
Basically, leadership is an art not a science. It’s an art that has been studied for ages, but still an art. The magic of good leadership is blending the different personalities involved while achieving a goal. Some leaders rise organically and others are placed, but if a leader is seen by subordinates as not competent or insufficient, the leader’s hold on the group will fall apart. There is no final or “best” way to be a leader. Leadership is not innate or in the blood, but depends on the needs of groups and situations and how well a leader connects.