What Is Leadership?


While the definition of leadership is the act of leading others, getting people to do so is easier said than done.

There is no simple formula to follow. Being a leader requires a special blend of leadership characteristics and leadership styles and skills in order to connect with those you're charged with guiding and directing, and the attempt to truly define it dates back thousands of years.

In Sun Tzu's "Art of War," the Chinese military general writes about leadership and what it requires.

"The masterful leader cultivates the moral law, and strictly adheres to proper methods and discipline; thus it is in his power to control success," Tzu wrote.

In the 1800s, historian Thomas Carlyle popularized the "Great Man" theory of leadership, which was based on the belief that leaders were born and not made. In his book "On Heroes, Hero-Worship and the Heroic in History," Carlyle points to likes of Muhammad and Shakespeare as examples of his theory.

"The history of the world is but the biography of great men," Carlyle said.

Several decades later, English philosopher Herbert Spencer countered the Great Man theory of leadership with his own. Spencer's belief was that leaders were the result of the society in which they lived.

 "You must admit that the genesis of a great man depends on the long series of complex influences which has produced the race in which he appears and the social state into which that race has slowly grown," Spencer wrote. "Before he can remake his society, his society must make him."

In the 1940s and 1950s, studies were conducted by researchers at Ohio State University, on the behavioral aspects of leaders, and at University of Michigan, on specific leadership styles: the task-oriented leader, the participative leader and the relationship-oriented leader.

In 1974, author Ralph Stogdill identified six categories of personal factors associated with leadership: capacity, achievement, responsibility, participation, status and situation.

In the 1980s, research by authors Paul Hershey and Ken Blanchard focused on the theory of situational leadership. The theory was based on the belief that there was no single leadership style that works best. Instead, Hershey and Blanchard concluded effective leaders are able to adapt their style for the task at hand.

Most recently, research published in the Harvard BusinessReview in 2000 by author and psychologist Daniel Goleman uncovered six different leadership styles: commanding, visionary, "affiliative," democratic, pacesetting and coaching.

Over time, individual businesses and organizations have determined what traits and styles they believe work best.

For example, the military looks for leaders that have good judgment, initiative, courage and endurance, while the National School Board Association places a high priority on its leaders having a constructive spirit of discontent, mental toughness and the respect of their peers.

Author Scott Berkun believes there are non-obvious ways to lead.

"Just by providing a good example as a parent, a friend, a neighbor makes it possible for other people to see better ways to do things," Berkun said. "Leadership does not need to be a dramatic, fist in the air and trumpets blaring, activity."

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