Although leadership is recognised as being an important construct, it is not a concept that holds one single definition. What leadership actually is, or how to define it correctly is still regarded as a mystery by many. Leadership is something that may differ depending on the people involved, the situation at hand, and the goals being pursued, and is therefore open to subjective interpretation. Stogdill (1974: 259) concluded that there are ‘almost as many definitions of leadership as there are persons who have attempted to define the concept’.
It could be argued that everyone has their own understanding of what constitutes leadership, based on personal and learning experiences, and situations and people, which is exactly why it is difficult to capture in a succinct definition. Grint (2004) narrows down the key reasons as to why it is so difficult to find a single and agreed understanding of leadership: process problems, position problems, philosophy problems, and purity problems. These problems refer to whether leadership is derived from traits or a social process, whether a leader is automatically in charge with formally allocated authority, and the questions as to whether a leader has intentional influence on the behaviour of followers, and is leadership embodied in individuals or groups and is it a purely human phenomenon.
This essay seeks to explore what leadership means to me, drawing on personal experience of leadership as a social phenomenon, and discussing my views from the perspective of both a leader and follower. In order to make sense of my understanding of leadership, a critical review and commentary on leadership theory is included in the discussion.
2. Personal Experience of Leadership Within the Workplace
For the past five years I have had a part time job at Marks and Spencer, and thus come across many types of leaders and managers. The question often asked is whether a manager can automatically be assumed to also be a leader? Zalenznik (1977) was one of the first to contrast leadership and management as he argued that a leader uses creativity and intuition, whereas a manager solves problems using rationality and control. Since then, many academics have agreed and argued that ‘good management brings about a degree of order and consistency to organisational processes and goals, whilst leadership is required for dynamic change’ (Kotter 1990: 104 cited in Bolden 2004: 6). In an organisation such as Marks and Spencer then, it is essential that they have both good management, who offer stability, consistency, order and efficiency, and good leaders who produce important change by keeping employees focused and motivated to achieve the vision communicated. In my workplace, I would say we have good ‘managers’ based on the above assumptions, however, I would not say that every manager is also a good leader. For this reason I agree with Kotter and Zalenznik, leadership and management differ from one another substantially.
In the workplace context I am a follower, and so from this perspective I have seen what I would consider to be good leadership, and poor leadership styles. The authors who have focused on followers suggest that they are active participants in the leadership relationship (Boccialetti, 1995; Chaleff, 1995; Kelley, 1992; Shamir, Pillai, Bligh, & Uhl-Bien, 2007). The socially constructed view sees leadership as being ‘in the eye of the beholder’ where it is the followers who have to agree on what constitutes leadership, and who they are prepared to follow. If the followers, and in my personal situation fellow employees, do not respect the leader, it is unlikely they will follow at all. Unless followers recognise and orient to particular behaviours, which they regard to be ‘leadership’, then the person trying to lead is not a leader whatever their intentions.
There is therefore no way for an individual to lead unless people are prepared to follow. There have been many instances at work when one particular manager has tried to lead change in the store, however because she is not well respected, and in my opinion does not come across as being a natural leader, often her vision gets ignored until another manager provides instructions for staff about the same vision. This manager is viewed by employees as having the role of simply instilling discipline, completing administrative tasks, and organising the shop floor, rather than communicating visions for change. Furthermore, although I believe that the roles of managers and leaders are very different, in my job there are no visible ‘leaders’ who are not managers in my store. The management team automatically take on the role of leadership, regardless of whether they are a good leader or not. As it is therefore management who attempt to provide the visions and plans for change, and employees like myself have no responsibility or say in the directions they wish to take. Uhl-Bien and Pillai (2007) argue that followers who perceive the leader as responsible for making decisions are less likely to take an active role in the decision making process, and so, they give up autonomy. Many of my fellow employees, who often do not enjoy the job, also expect the leader, in this instance our manager, to motivate them rather than motivating themselves. The managers recognise this and often offer incentives, such as a bottle of wine, if we achieve certain targets. This could therefore be considered to be transactional leadership.
A typical way of describing leadership styles within the organisation is applying McGregor’s (1969) theory X and theory Y. McGregor assumes that an organisation and its leaders can have differing opinions on the motivation and abilities of their employees. My line manager presumes that her staff dislikes working and takes a negative view of human nature, believing we will avoid doing work if possible. This is evident, as she will often split employees up on the shop floor to prevent them from ‘chatting’, and she constantly checks up on her staff to ensure they are doing what she has asked them to do. Her actions and leadership style concur with what McGregor describes as theory X leaders. My manager believes that coercion and control is necessary to ensure that people work, and she never gives employees like myself any extra responsibilities. This style is also referred to as the autocratic style.
Although my manager is assumed to be the leader at work, I would argue that she is not a good leader, and there have been times when I have had better guidance from a fellow colleague. My manager has a coercive style according to Goleman’s six leadership styles. She expects immediate compliance, often provides negative and corrective feedback and controls tightly. This style does not motivate employees to see her visions or follow her lead, instead it has often turned employees against her and people have refused to do certain tasks because of her leadership style.
3. Myself as a Leader – Badminton Coach and Captain
From a young age I have been told that I am a natural leader, possibly because I am bossy and like to get things done! Ever since I remember I have had certain personality traits, which I consider to be those of leaders: I am confident, ambitious, dominant, and so naturally take the lead in most situations. Based on what I have learnt from leaders I have come across, when leading my badminton team I keep in mind what styles I believe will be most successful.
I consider myself to be a transformational leader (Bass and Avolio 1994) when in the role of badminton captain. As a leader I believe it is important for me to have a clear vision, and most importantly, be able to communicate it effectively to the whole team. Unlike the traditional transactional theory of leadership, which emphasizes corrective action, centralised control and rewards only when performance expectations are met, transformational leaders trust their subordinates and it is a more developmental and constructive form of leadership. In a sports team context it is also important for me to articulate our team’s goals, which should be realistic and achievable. For example, before entering a tournament I will state where I expect us to finish, and that the vision is to win a gold medal. In order to achieve this goal I also have to motivate the team, and make sure they put the team and tournament at the top of their priority list, above any other self-interests at that time. Additionally I have to get the team members to understand how their style of play affects others, therefore encouraging them to view their game from others perspectives. And finally I have to develop the team in many ways, both physically to prepare them for a big tournament, and mentally so they reach their highest levels of ability. It could therefore be argued, that as a leader I follow what Bass and Avolio (1990) call the ‘four I’s’: Idealised Influence, Inspirational Motivation, Intellectual Stimulation, and Individualised Consideration.
As a person I have previously been told that I am very charismatic. I think this also shows in my leadership style and I think I am also a charismatic leader. Northouse (2004) described the major characteristics as: dominant personally with the desire to influence others, strong role model behaviour and competence, articulation of ideological goals with moral overtones, and high expectation of followers and confidence that they will meet these expectations.
Although I believe I have the personality traits required to become a leader, I am aware that there have been occasions when my leadership styles have been unsuccessful, as I have become impatient or intolerant of the followers. From these experiences I believe I have learnt a lot and therefore also see the importance of situational leadership and having the ability to alter the leadership styles I adopt.
4. Could Parents be considered to be Leaders?
When considering leaders and leadership, and what it means to me, I thought about what my first experience of leadership ever was. Although leadership in an organisation is the key focus of the module and course, it cannot go ignored that my parents were the first influential leaders in my life. My parents have been very influential leaders in my life. As managing directors of their own company, they have always played the role of managers, however in our home their leadership style varied to that of in their work place, and to the styles of each other. My parents have ‘led me in the right direction’. Unlike the traditional theories of leadership such as The Great Man Theory I would argue that my mum is the strongest leader in our home. It has been argued that women are more likely to use transformational leadership (Rosener 1990), and as the follower, this is the style I find motivational, inspirational and therefore successful. She uses more interactive leadership styles in comparison to my dad as she encourages participation, power and information sharing and enhanced self worth.
Although the leadership styles of parents are arguably very different to those of leaders within an organisation, my parents and their styles have had a massive influence on my understanding of leadership and on my whole life! They have led me to where I am today. I have been extremely lucky to be able to experience their leadership styles whilst running their company, therefore within an organisation. In this situation they both use different methods of leading than they do at home, thus supporting Hersey and Blanchard’s (1969) theory that leaders could adapt their styles to suit the situation. Situational or contingent leadership models recognise this, and support the argument that what constitutes effective leadership will be influenced by the situational factors such as the people involved, the task to be carried out, and the organisational culture. It is therefore essential that leaders employ a variety of approaches across a range of situations.
From taking the time to consider what leadership means to me, it has only become more apparent about how complex the concept of leadership actually is. I believe ‘leadership’ is different to different people. Whom I consider to be an effective leader, others may not, and what I consider to be traits that create a successful leader, others may not. Leadership to me is something that comes naturally, however in different situations, there needs to be different forms of leadership in order for your followers to ‘follow’. Although there have been many studies on leadership, and many theories produced, I agree with Burns’ statement that ‘leadership is one of the most observed and least understood phenomena on earth’. (Burns, 1978: 3)
5.1 My theoretical understanding of leadership
I have found it difficult to truly understand and specify my theoretical stance of leadership. Generally speaking, it is assumed that a person either believes that leadership is a consequence of a set of traits or characteristics possessed by leaders, or that leadership is a social process that emerges and is learned throughout life and from group relationships. I, on the other hand, believe there is truth in both approaches. I would argue that some people are simply born leaders due to their dispositions and personalities, however they also need to learn and understand how to use these traits to become a successful leader, hence leadership capability must also be partly learned. I have this opinion because of my experiences. I often become the leader in group task situations, at university for example, and although I know it often comes naturally to me, I have had to learn how to use my leadership trait effectively in order to succeed and lead the followers. I agree with Gallie’s statement that ‘Leadership appears to be, like power, an essentially contested concept’ (Gallie 1995 cited in Grint 2004: 1). Furthermore, I have the same opinion of the situational leadership approach due to personal experiences with leaders, and as a leader myself. Zaccaro (2007), Sternberg (2007), and Vroom and Jago (2007) argue that neither trait nor situational attributes alone are sufficient to explain leader behaviour and effectiveness. It is the interaction between traits and situations that counts.