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p. 11. What is leadership?locked

  • Keith Grint


‘What is leadership?’ explains that there is no general agreement on the basic meaning of ‘leadership’, but acknowledges that we do need to know what the various definitions are to make sense of each other's arguments. The four types of leadership considered are position-based, person-based, result-based, and process-based. Using case studies such as Benjamin Franklin and Admiral Nelson, the characteristics of these leadership types are discussed. The conclusion is that without followers, you cannot be a leader, no matter how many ‘individual’ competences you might have. Instead, the importance of leadership ‘practices’ — not what leaders ‘have’, but what they ‘do’ — might be considered.


What is leadership? Well, despite almost three thousand years of ponderings and over a century of ‘academic’ research into leadership, we appear to be no nearer a consensus as to its basic meaning, let alone whether it can be taught or its effects measured and predicted. This cannot be because of a dearth of interest or material: on 29 October 2003, there were 14,139 books relating to ‘leadership’ on for sale. Just over six years later, that number had almost quadrupled to 53,121 – and clear evidence that within a short space of time there will be more books about leadership than people to read them. You would be forgiven for thinking that more information equates to greater understanding. Unfortunately, we just seem to generate ever-greater disparity in our understandings and seem no nearer ‘the truth’ about defining leadership than before we began to publish so much material. Indeed, my own journey through the literature is represented in Figure 1. When I began reading the leadership literature in about 1986, I had already spent some time in various leadership positions, so at that time I'd read little but I understood everything about the subject from the University of Life. Then, as I read more material, I realized that all my previous ‘truths’ were built on very dubious foundations, so my understanding decreased as my knowledge increased. 2006 was a difficult year: I'd read hundreds, p. 2

1. Leadership: knowledge and understanding

if not thousands, of books and articles, and concluded that Socrates was right – wisdom only comes when you realize how ignorant you are. I think I'm now on the road to recovery and have got past base camp with this conclusion: at its most basic, the ‘essence’ of leadership – as an individual leader – leaves out the followers, and without followers you cannot be a leader. Indeed, this might be the simplest definition of leadership: ‘having followers’.

So how are we going to approach this topic? The importance of the definition of leadership is not simply to delineate a space in a language game, and it is not merely a game of sophistry; indeed, we don't need to agree on the definition (though organizations probably should), but we should at least be able to understand each other's position so as to make sense of each other's arguments. After all, how we define leadership has vital implications for how organizations work – or don't work – who we reward and punish. Over 50 years ago, W. B. Gallie called power an ‘essentially contested concept’ (ECC). Gallie suggested that many concepts – such as power – involved ‘endless disputes about their proper uses on the part of the users’, to the point where debates appeared irresolvable. For example, a discussion about whether Bush or p. 3Blair were ‘good’ leaders is likely to generate more heat than light, and precious little hope of a consensus amongst people who bring different definitions of ‘good’ leadership to the debate.

So we don't need to agree on the definition, but we need to know what the definitions are. We might start by considering what the most popular books have to say on the issue. Many are based on autobiographical or biographical accounts – they relate leadership to the person regarded as the leader. Others define leadership as a process – this may be the style that leaders adopt, or a process such as ‘sense-making’ (according to Weick, ‘the process by which information which is undigested and contradictory is made sense of’), or the practices of leaders. Some define leadership by simply considering what those in authority do – a positional approach. Often, the definition is close to that of power, drawn from Weber's and Dahl's original idea that power (and thus leadership) was the ability to get someone to do something they wouldn't otherwise have done. This approach tends to lock leadership into mobilizing a group or community to achieve a purpose – a results approach. Some of these we shall return to, but, apart from noting the varying properties of these definitions, we are left more, rather than less, confused by them. Leadership does seem to be defined differently and, even if there are some similarities, the complexities undermine most attempts to explain why the differences exist. However, the dissensus seems to hang around four areas of dispute, leadership defined as position or person or result or process.

This fourfold typology does not claim universal coverage, but it should encompass a significant proportion of our definitions of leadership. Moreover, the typology is not hierarchical: it does not claim that one definition is more important than another and, contrary to the consensual approach, it is constructed upon foundations that may be mutually exclusive. In effect, we may have to choose which form of leadership we are talking about rather than attempt to elide the differences. It is, however, quite possible p. 4that empirical examples of leadership embody elements of all four forms. Thus we are left with four major alternatives:

Leadership as position: is it where ‘leaders’ operate that makes them leaders?

Leadership as person: is it who ‘leaders’ are that makes them leaders?

Leadership as result: is it what ‘leaders’ achieve that makes them leaders?

Leadership as process: is it how ‘leaders’ get things done that makes them leaders?

All these aspects are ‘ideal types’, following Weber's assertion that no such ‘real’ empirical case probably exists in any pure form, but this does enable us to understand the phenomenon of leadership better – and its attendant confusions and complexities – because leadership means different things to different people. This is therefore a heuristic model – a pragmatic attempt to make sense of the world – not an attempt to carve up the world into ‘objective’ segments that mirror what we take to be reality. I will suggest, having examined these four different approaches to leadership, that the differences explain both why so little agreement has been reached on the definition of leadership and why this is important to the execution and analysis of leadership.

Defining leadership

Position-based leadership

Leadership is traditionally related to a spatial position in an organization of some kind – formal or informal. Thus we can define leadership as the activity undertaken by someone whose position on a vertical, and usually formal, hierarchy provides them with the resources to lead. These people are ‘above us’, ‘at the top of the tree’, ‘superordinates’, and so on. In effect, they exhibit what we might call ‘leadership-in-charge’. This is how we normally perceive p. 5the heads of vertical hierarchies, whether CEOs or military generals or head teachers or their equivalents. These people lead from their positional control over large networks of subordinates and tend to drive any required change from the top. That ‘drive’ also hints at both the mechanistic assumptions about how organizations work and the coercion that is available to those in charge: a general can order executions, a judge can imprison people, and a CEO can discipline or sack employees, and so on.

A related aspect of this vertical structuring is what appears to be the parallel structuring of power and responsibility. Since the leader is ‘in charge’, then presumably he or she can ensure the enactment of his or her will. But while a formal leader may demand obedience from his or her subordinates – and normally acquire it, among other things, because of the resource imbalance – that obedience is never guaranteed. In fact, one could suggest that power encompasses a counterfactual possibility, a subjunctivist verb tense rather than just a verb – it could have been otherwise. Indeed, one could well argue that power is not so much a cause of subordinate action as a consequence of it: if subordinates do as leaders demand, then, and only then, are leaders powerful. If this was not the case, then we could not explain a mutiny – an act of insubordination in a military hierarchy that can occur only if the subordinate has the power to say ‘no’ – and the courage to face the consequences.

The limitations of restricting leadership to a position within a vertical hierarchy are also exposed when we move to consider leadership-in-front, a horizontal approach, in which leadership is largely unrelated to vertical hierarchies and is usually informally constituted through a network or a heterarchy (a flexible and fluid hierarchy). Leadership ‘in-front’ might be manifest in several forms, and where it merges into leadership-in-charge might be at the penultimate rank at the bottom of a hierarchy. For instance, within an army such leadership might be manifest in corporals who have some degree of formal authority but may secure their p. 6position with the ordinary soldiers – their followers – through leading from the front. Indeed, the leadership abilities of low-level leaders may be critical in differentiating the success of armies. It may be, for example, that the old adage about sergeants being ‘the backbone of the army’ has more than a trace of truth in it.

More commonly, though, we might conceive of leadership-in-front from a fashion leader – someone who is ‘in front’ of his or her followers, whether that is trends in clothing, music, culture, business models, or whatever. These leaders provide guides to the mass of fashion-followers without any formal authority over them. But leading from the front also encompasses those who guide others, either a professional guide showing the way or simply whoever knows the best way to an agreed destination amongst a group of friends on a Sunday stroll; both guides exhibit leadership through their role in front but neither is necessarily formally instituted into an official hierarchy. We might even retrace the origins of the English word for leadership to shed light on this aspect. The etymological roots of the English word ‘leadership’ derive from the Old German ‘Lidan’, to go; the Old English ‘Lithan’, to travel; and the Old Norse ‘Leid’, to find the way at sea.

Leadership-in-front might also be provided in the sense of legitimizing otherwise prohibited behaviour. For instance, we might consider how Hitler's overt and public anti-Semitism legitimated the articulation of anti-Semitism by his followers. And again it has been suggested that acts such as suicide or antisocial behaviour such as graffiti provide ‘permission’ by ‘leaders-in-front’ for others to follow, hence there are often spates of similar acts in quick succession, almost as if the social behaviour operates as an epidemic.

Leadership along this positional dimension, then, differs according to the extent to which it is formally or informally structured, and vertically or horizontally constituted. Leadership-in-charge implies some degree of centralizing resources and authority, while p. 7leadership-in-front might, in some circumstances, imply something closer to leading without authority. But does this imply that the character of the leader is less relevant than where that leader operates from?

Person-based leadership

Is it who you are that determines whether you are a leader or not? This, of course, resonates with the traditional traits approach: a leader's character or personality. We might consider the best example of this as the charismatic to whom followers are attracted because of the charismatic's personal ‘magnetism’. Ironically, while a huge effort has been made to reduce the ideal leader to his or her essence – the quintessential characteristics or competencies or behaviours of the leader – the effort of reduction has simultaneously reduced its value. It is rather as if a leadership scientist had turned chef and was engaged in reducing a renowned leader to his or her elements by placing them in a saucepan and applying heat. Eventually the residue left from the cooking could be analysed and the material substances divided into their various chemical compounds. But, although it may be that some chemical residues do, paradoxically, have exactly this ability (heroin, for example, is often blamed for ‘leading’ people astray), the question ‘what is leadership?’ is unanswerable because it is not possible to analyse leaders in the absence of followers or contexts.

A complementary or contradictory case can also be made for defining leadership generally as a collective, rather than an individual, phenomenon. In this case, the focus usually moves from an individual formal leader to multiple informal leaders. We might, for example, consider how organizations actually achieve anything, rather than being over-concerned with what the CEO has said should be achieved. Thus we could trace the role of informal opinion-leaders in persuading their colleagues to work differently, or to work harder, or not to work at all, and so on. We shall return to this issue in Chapter 7.

p. 8Either way, leadership along this criterion is primarily defined by who the leader is or leaders are (formal and informal), and it may be that such an approach is associated with an emotional relationship between leader and followers or between leaders. At its most extreme, this emotional relationship renders the followers in ‘the crowd’ incapable of discriminating between good and bad actions.

Despite the Western fetish for heroic individuals as leadership icons, it is not at all clear that such examples exist in social isolation. For instance, Newton may claim to have ‘led’ the discovery of gravity, but it was, in effect, the result of collective work by Robert Hooke and Edmund Halley as well as Newton. We might also want to differentiate here between leadership as means and ends. For instance, the assembly line is the means by which workers are ‘led’ to act. But the ends do not originate in the machinery; instead, they are constructed by the present but invisible human leader(s). So how important are the ends – the results – of leadership?

Results-based leadership

It might be more appropriate to take the results-based approach because without results – the purpose of leadership – there is little support for it. There may be thousands of individuals who are ‘potentially’ great leaders, but if that potential is never realized, if no products of that leadership are forthcoming, then it would be logically difficult to speak of these people as ‘leaders’, except in the sense of ‘failed’ or ‘theoretical’ leaders – people who actually achieve little or nothing. On the other hand, there is a tendency to focus on results as both the primary criterion for leadership and as attributed to leaders: for example, since the company achieved a 200% increase in profits – which is its primary purpose – we should reward the leader appropriately. But there are two other issues that need further examination here. First, why and how do we attribute the collective products of an organization to the actions of the individual leader? Second, assuming that we can p. 9causally link the two, do the methods by which the products are achieved play any role in determining the presence of leadership?

The first issue – that we can trace effects back to the actions of individual leaders – is deeply controversial. On the one hand, there are several studies from a psychological approach that suggest it is possible to measure the effect of leaders, but more sociologically inclined authors often deny the validity of such measures. Thus we may have clear evidence of success – or failure – and we know who the leader was at the time, but we are rarely in a position to say, categorically, that the actions of the leader led directly to the results (see Rosenzweig on this issue, listed in the further reading section). More often, there are a whole raft of people and processes involved that separate the leader from the result. Why, then, you might ask, do we typically focus on the leader for responsibility? Émile Durkheim, a French sociologist writing at the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th centuries, argued that followers actually wanted their leaders to be god-like in their powers. This served the followers in two separate but related ways: first, all the responsibility for difficult decisions could be placed on the leader (thereby justifying the significant disparity in rewards given to leaders and followers); second, when (rather than if) that leader failed, the followers would scapegoat him or her and thus cleanse themselves of any responsibility. The most extreme case against results-based leadership, especially the results of ‘Great Men’, is made by Tolstoy in War and Peace, in which he likens leaders to bow waves of moving boats – always in front and theoretically leading, but, in practice, not leading but merely being pushed along by the boat (organization) itself.

This brings us to the second issue at the heart of results-based leadership – does the process by which the results are achieved actually matter? Most certainly, the office or school bully who successfully ‘encourages’ followers to comply under threat of punishment becomes a leader under the results-based criteria – providing they are successful in their coercion and its effects. But p. 10such a results-based approach to leadership immediately sets it at odds with some perspectives that differentiate leaders according to some putative distinction between leadership – which is allegedly non-coercive – and all other forms of activity that we might regard as the actions of a ‘bully’ or a ‘tyrant’ and so on. Indeed, most aspects of leadership use motivational strategies that can be regarded by some people – especially those subject to them – as coercive. Thus a religious charismatic might regard his or her actions as simply based on revealing the truth to their followers – who are then free to choose to follow or not as they wish. But if the followers believe that failure to adhere to religious principles will lead to eternal damnation and a slow roast in hell, then they might consider that as coercive. Equally, an employer may not regard an employment contract as coercive since both parties freely enter into it, but if the employee feels that failing to work at the requisite level will lead to ‘the sack’ – with all its attendant embarrassment, discrimination, and penury – then he or she may believe the contract to be coercive. Nevertheless, for those who perceive leadership to be primarily purposive, focused on results, the process by which these results were obtained, or even whether the leader was responsible for them, may be insignificant.

Of course, results-based leadership need not be restricted to authoritarian or unethical leaders; on the contrary, it can also be exemplified by eminently practical people who may be distinctly uncharismatic but very effective in getting things done. Much of their work may often go unnoticed, but it may also be critical in keeping the organization moving, and this form of leadership may be associated with an appeal to the interests of followers rather than their emotional relationships.

One particularly well-supported case of this is that of Benjamin Franklin, whose early successes seem not to have been based on articulating a compelling vision or rousing the emotions of followers to transcend their personal interests in favour of the greater good. On the contrary, Franklin's pragmatic leadership was p. 11rooted in finding practical solutions to outstanding problems that engaged the interests, rather than the emotions, of others. Yet those mobilized by Franklin were not simply involved in an exchange process with him, as understood in transactional theories of leadership, because, for example, in instigating the development in Philadelphia of a police force, a hospital, a paper currency, paving, lighting, and volunteer fire departments, and so on, Franklin's skill lay in persuading his colleagues to solve their own practical problems. An important point here is the visibility of Franklin's leadership, for although the results were clear, the hand that secured the results was not. In effect, if Franklin had died early in his career, it may well be that much of this backroom networking may not have become apparent and that he would not have been considered a great leader.

Thus results-based leadership can embody both highly visible charismatic individuals and almost completely invisible ‘social engineers’; moreover, it contains approaches that can range from ‘what have we achieved’, in terms of targets reached, goals secured, and so on, to ‘what are we here for?’ – a purposive or identity-focused philosophy to which we shall return. But, as I suggested above, not everyone accepts that the most important issue is the results, rather the methods; so does focusing upon the processes by which leadership is recognized offer a radically different perspective?

Process-based leadership

There is an assumption that people to whom we attribute the term ‘leader’ act differently from non-leaders – that some people ‘act like leaders’ – but what does this mean? It could mean that the context is critical, or that leaders must be exemplary, or that the attribution of difference starts early in the lives of individuals such that ‘natural’ leaders can be perceived in the school playgrounds or on the sports field. But what is this ‘process’ differential? Are leaders those who allegedly embody the exemplary performance we require to avoid any hint of hypocrisy? p. 12And when sacrifice is required or new forms of behaviour demanded from followers, is it exemplary leaders who are the most successful?

Perhaps, but think of two counter-examples that contradict this ideal type. First, sergeant majors tend to secure followers whether they embody exemplary action or not. We might argue that coercive sergeant majors who scream at recruits on the parade ground are not ‘really’ leaders, but if their leadership processes do indeed produce trained soldiers, are we to deduce that the military, because it is rooted in coercive mechanisms, cannot demonstrate leadership? Or is it that what counts as a legitimate leadership process depends upon the local culture? That is, soldiers expect to be coerced, and would probably not recognize attempts by their sergeants or officers to reach a consensus by egalitarian debate as ‘leadership’?

The second counter-example is Admiral Nelson, an individual whose military successes were almost always grounded in a paradoxical situation wherein he demanded absolute obedience from his subordinates to naval regulations but who personally broke just about every rule in that same rule book. Yet Nelson's success was not simply a consequence of rule-breaking actions but also a result of his engagement with, and motivation of, his followers, most importantly his fellow officers in his battle fleet, his ‘Band of Brothers’. Hence, at one level, this process approach may encompass the specific skills and resources that motivate followers: rhetoric, coercion, bribery, exemplary behaviour, bravery, and so on. Leadership under this guise is necessarily a relational concept, not a possessional one. In other words, it does not matter whether you think you have great process skills if your followers disagree with you. Thus it may be that we can recognize leadership by the behavioural processes that differentiate leaders from followers, but this does not mean we can simply list the processes as universally valid across space and time. After all, we would not expect a 2nd-century Roman leader to act in the same way as a p. 1321st-century Italian politician (though they might), yet it remains the case that most of our assumptions about leadership relate to our own cultural context rather than someone else's – a Pandora's box of complexity that is beyond this small introduction (see Chhokar et al., in the further reading section).

Indeed, while many accounts of the leadership process might focus upon the acts of ‘Great Men’, it has long been a point of great controversy as to whether men and women lead in the same way or in ways that are genetically or culturally influenced by their genders. And while Thomas Carlyle's heroic ‘men’ solve the problems of their followers (see Chapters 3 and 4), it may be that leadership is really related to making followers face up to their own responsibilities. Indeed, it may be that leadership – for most people – has little to do with any form of heroics and is rather a consequence of much more ‘mundane’ and everyday practices through which social relationships and thus social capital are built and strengthened, though the label ‘mundane’ underestimates the skill and precision required to perform these intricate acts, for they are meticulously constructed. Indeed, to those of us unable to reproduce such acts, they appear more like the tacit skills of a magician – ostensibly simple but impossible to explain. Thus it is the assiduous leaders who, for example, consistently ask about the health of their followers' families, or who always make a point of ensuring their followers are in agreement with the direction of the organization and their work rate, who build the networks that make the organization work.

It is, therefore, not how many leadership competences you can tick off on your CV that makes you a successful leader, for these are inevitably decontextualized. What, for instance, is the point of having a high level of competence in public speaking when your leadership is required in a place where no public speaking role is required? Competences, then, are often essentially related to an individual – yet leadership is necessarily a relational phenomenon: without followers, you cannot be a leader, no matter how many p. 14‘individual’ competences you might have. Instead, we might consider the importance of leadership ‘practices’ – not what leaders ‘have’, but what they ‘do’. But do leaders also engage in activities that may not be regarded as leadership? This is the focus of the next chapter.