Define Leadership – Understanding It For Your Career Growth

Somewhere along the line in your career, you will try to define leadership. Why is this so? As we work with bosses, managers and heads of units you will begin to wonder about their role. In fact, you will aspire to be a manager someday or positions higher than the one you are now.

This article is meant to give you a quick overview of the various theories on leadership and how they define leadership from various aspects.

With an understanding of leadership, you can start your quest to become a leader or a better leader.

So, how do you define leadership? There are many definitions as to what leadership is. One thing is clear; leadership is a process where a leader influences the direction of a unit in achieving its objective.

This inevitably brings you to the next logical question – is then everyone that sits higher on a position in a hierarchy a leader? The answer is no.

Although leaders are part of a hierarchy, not everyone on a hierarchy is a leader. For example, your manager sits higher than you in the organizational structure. But that doesn’t make your manager a leader. The difference between a manager and leader is one of great debate and a lot of research has gone into it.

Experts have been trying to define leadership via several aspects for many years. These schools of thought are not mutually exclusive in that they do share some common ground. Collectively, they do give you a sense of how you can define leadership for yourself and apply those that works for you in your quest for career success.

1. Traits Theory
People who believe that leaders are born are likely to buy into the Traits Theory. This theory basically centers itself on the leader. What are the qualities of a leader? Now if you look at the different leaders of the world, companies or armies they all carry certain traits. It is believed that if one carries these characteristics then one is likely to become a leader.

So, this theory defines what are the qualities that a leader should posses rather than leadership. If one is a leader then these leadership traits should be present.

2. Behavioral Theory
How would you define leadership if you believe in the Behavioral Theory? This group of experts concentrated on what the leaders did in relation to their followers. While the previous theory spoke about qualities of a leader, this theory approached it from the angle of style.

This theory grouped different forms of behavior leaders have towards their followers into various sections. In many management classes and leadership courses you will come across terms like leaders who are “Task Oriented” or “People Oriented”. You will also come across phrases like “Directive Leadership” and “Participative Leadership”.

3. Contingency Theory
While the first two theories define leadership via traits and styles - the Contingency Theory takes in consideration the weaknesses of the previous theories. Since leadership functions in a dynamic situation, it is only logical that different styles and traits will work in different situations. The Contingency Theory takes into consideration the context where leadership is exercised.

Core to this approach is a myriad of factors that determines whether a leader becomes effective or otherwise. If you define leadership as such, then in your course of career growth you would take into consideration what styles and traits works the best in a given situation.

4. Transformational Theory
Someone from the Transformational Theory would define leadership from the angle of the leader as a change agent. They look at the effects of the leader towards his followers. There are 3 ways how a leader can change their followers – intensifying the level of awareness about the importance of the task and how to achieve it, focusing the team on the bigger goals of the unit rather than individual goals and to motivate the followers into a higher-order need (e.g., Maslow’s Hierarchy Of Needs).

Charisma is seen as an important aspect in this theory. It is believed that charisma affects followers by stirring their strong emotions and allowing followers to identify with their leaders.

As you can see, there are many definitions of leadership. It is important for you to have a good understanding of what is leadership as your career grows. Eventually you will find yourself leading a project or a team and these learning will come in handy.

Here are my recommended books and articles on leadership

Harvard Business Review on Leadership (Harvard Business Review Paperback Series) has a good collection of classic articles on leadership and its challenges. It includes classics like What Leaders Really Do (John P. Kotter), Managers and Leaders: Are They Different? (Abraham Zaleznik) and The Work of Leadership (Ronald A. Heifetz and Donald L. Laurie).

Harvard Business Review on Breakthrough Leadership contains important work on leadership like - Primal Leadership: The Hidden Driver of Great Performance from Daniel Goleman, Richard Boyatzis and Annie McKee.

Lastly, Harvard Business Review on What Makes a Leader has an excellent collection of articles that includes What Makes a Leader (Daniel Goleman), Narcissistic Leaders: The Incredible Pros, the Inevitable Cons (Michael Maccoby) and Why Should Anyone Be Led By You (Robert Goffee and Gareth Jones).

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