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Leadership can refer both to the process of leading, and to those entities that do the leading. The process of leadership can be actual or potential:

  • actual - giving guidance or direction, as in the phrase "the emperor has provided satisfactory leadership"
  • potential - the capacity or ability to lead, as in the phrase "she could have exercised effective leadership"

Leadership can have a formal aspect (as in most political or business leadership) or an informal one (as in most friendships). Speaking of "leadership" (the abstract term) rather than of "leading" (the action) usually implies that the entities doing the leading have some "leadership skills" or competencies. Several types of entities may provide or exhibit leadership, actual or potential, including:

  • a person in the position or office of authority, such as a President [1]
  • a person in a position of office associated with expertise, skill, or experience, as in a team leader, a chief engineer, or a parent
  • a group or person in the vanguard of some trend or movement, as in fashion trend-setters
  • a group of respected people, (called a "reference group" by sociologists) such as business commentators or union spokespersons [2]
  • a product that influences other product offerings in a competitive marketplace

The term "leadership" can characterise the leadership given by an entity and also the period of the leadership, as in "During the 1940s Russia was under Stalinist leadership". In formal hierarchies the term can also serve to describe the position or relationships which allow and legitimize the exercising of leadership behaviour.

"Leadership" can come from an individual, a collective group of leaders, or even from the disincarnate -- if not mystical -- characteristics of a celebrity figurehead (compare hero). Yet other usages have a "leadership" which does little active leading, but to which followers show great (often traditional) respect (compare the courtesy title reverend). Followers often endow the leader with status or prestige. Aside from the prestige-role sometimes granted to inspirational leaders, a more mundane usage of the word "leadership" can designate current front-runners that exercise influence over competitors, for example, a corporation or a product can hold a position of "market leadership" without any implication of permanence or of merited respect. (See also price leadership.) Note that the ability to influence others does form an integral part of the "leadership" of some but not all front-runners. A front-runner in a sprint may "lead" the race, but does not have a position of "leadership" if he does not have the potential to influence others in some way. Thus one can make an important distinction between "being in the lead" and the process of leadership. Leadership implies a relationship of power - the power to guide others.

In some languages the term for a leader and the term for the principle of leadership have very different meanings. Furthermore, note the different connotations of a synonym of the word "leader" adopted from the German: the word Führer, and its acompanying ideas on the Führerprinzip.

In would-be controlling groups such as the military, political parties, ruling élites, and other belief-based enterprises like religions or businesses, the idea of leadership can become a Holy Grail and people can come to expect transformational change stemming from the leader; such entities may encourage their followers and believers to worship leadership, to respect it, and to strive (whether realistically or not) to become proficient in it. Followers in such a situation may become uncritically obedient. Personal strategies that one can use to guard against the unrealistic expectations associated with belief in leaders include maintaining a questioning and skeptical attitude, and having confidence in one's own decision-making abilities. Within groups, alternatives to the cult of leadership include using decision-making structures such as co-operative ventures, collegiality, consensus, anarchism and applied democracy.

Leadership associated with a position of authority

In On Heroes, Hero-Worship, and the Heroic in History, Thomas Carlyle demonstrated the concept of leadership associated with a position of authority. In praising Oliver Cromwell's use of power to bring King Charles I to trial and eventual beheading, he wrote the following: "Let us remark, meanwhile, how indispensable everywhere a King is, in all movements of men. It is strikingly shown, in this very War, what becomes of men when they cannot find a Chief Man, and their enemies can." [3]

From this viewpoint, leadership emerges when an entity as "leader" contrives to receive deference from other entities who become "followers". And as the passage from Carlyle demonstrates, the process of getting deference can become competitive in that the emerging "leader" draws "followers" from the factions of the prior or alternative "leaders".

The United States constitution provides another example of recycling authority. In the Constitutional Convention of 1787, the American Founders rejected the idea of a monarch. But they still proposed leadership by people in positions of authority, with the authority split into three powers: in this case the legislative, the executive, and the judiciary. Under the American theory, the authority of the leadership derives from the power of the voters as conveyed through the electoral college. Many individuals share leadership, including the many legislators in the Senate and the House of Representatives. [4]

Leadership cycles

If a group or an organisation wants or expects identifiable leadership, it will require processes for appointing/acquiring and replacing leaders.

Traditional closed groups rely on bloodlines or seniority to select leaders and/or leadership candidates: monarchies, tribal chiefdoms, oligarchies and aristocratic societies rely on (and often define their institutions by) such methods.

Competence or perceived competence provides a possible basis for selecting leadership elites more broadly. Political lobbying may prove necessary in electoral systems, but immediately demonstrated skill and character may secure leadership in smaller groups such as gangs.

Many organizations and groups aim to identify, foster and promote leadership potential or ability - especially among younger members of society. See for example the Scouting movement. For a specific environment, see leadership development.

The issues of succession planning or legitimation become important at times when leadership might or must change due to term-expiry, accident or senescence.

Titles emphasizing authority

In the course of the 19th and 20th centuries, several political operators took non-traditional paths to become dominant in their societies. They or their systems often expressed a belief in strong individual leadership, but existing titles and labels ("king", "emperor", "president" and so on) often seemed inappropriate, insufficient or downright inaccurate in the circumstances. The formal or informal titles or descriptions they or their flunkeys employed express and foster a general veneration for leadership of the inspired and autocratic variety. The definite article when used as part of the title (in languages which have have definite articles) emphasises the existence of a sole "true" leader. Cases include:

The respective etymologies of these titles suggest various images of leadership: that of a "driver" (Führer, Vozhd), of a "head" (Caudillo, Poglavnik), or of someone followed (Duce).

Such titles, and even the personal names associated with them, may also appear with reference -- often jocular -- to heirs and would-be imitators. Thus people may continue to speak of little Hitlers in a workplace or refer to a non-collegial prime minister ironically as The Great Helmsman. Compare the way in which the personal family name Caesar and the adopted by-name Augustus became effectively titles or designations for successive heads of the Roman Empire.

South Pacific traditions of the "Big Man" express perhaps most succinctly the idea of leadership in all aspects of society, all bound up in a suggestively direct title.

Leadership amongst primates

Richard Wrangham and Dale Peterson, in Demonic Males: Apes and the Origins of Human Violence present the empirical evidence that only humans and chimpanzees, among all the animals living on earth, share a similar tendency for violence, territoriality, and competition for uniting behind the one chief male of the land. [5] (Note the status of chimpanzees as humans' closest species-relatives: humans inherited 98% of their genes from the ancestors of the chimpanzees.

By comparison, bonobos, the second-closest species-relatives of man, do not unite behind the chief male of the land. The bonobos show deference to an alpha or top-ranking female that, with the support of her coalition of other females, is as strong as the strongest male in the land. Thus, if leadership amounts to getting the greatest number of followers, then among the bonobos, a female almost always exerts the strongest and most effective leadership.

Some have argued that, since the bonobo pattern inverts the dominant pattern among chimpanzees and men with regard to whether a female can get more followers than a male, humans and chimpanzees both likely inherited gender-bias against women from the ancestors of the chimpanzees; gender-bias features as a genetic condition of men. And the bias against women having leadership as a position of authority occurs in most cultures in the world. As of 2002, Sweden had the highest percentage of women in the legislature: but only 43%. And the United States, Andorra, Israel, Sierra Leone, and Ireland tied for 57th place with less than 15% of the legislature women.[6] Admittedly, those percentages significantly outclass the occurrence of female chimpanzees becoming alpha of the community by getting the most followers, but similar trends exist in manifesting a general gender-bias across cultures against females getting leadership as a position of authority over followers.

An alternative explanation suggests that those individuals best suited to lead the a group will somehow rise to the occasion and that followers for some reason will accepted them as leaders or as proto-leaders. In this scenario, the traits of the leaders (such as gender, aggressiveness, etc.) will depend on the requirements of a given situation, and ongoing leadership may become extrapolated from a series of such situations.

In cultural anthropology, much speculation on the origins of human leadership relates to the perceived increasing need for dispute resolution in increasingly densely-populated and increasingly complex societies.

Leadership as a vanguard

Sometimes followership can occur without intentional leadership. A well-known (but probably mythical) example of this involves swarms of lemmings which follow the first lemming off a cliff. The animal kingdom also provides the model of the bellwether function in a mob of sheep. And human society also offers many examples of emulation. The fashion industry, for example, depends on it. Fashion marketers design clothing for celebrities, then offer less expensive variations for those who emulate the celebrities.

Another example of followership without intentional leadership comes with the market leadership of a pioneering company, or the price leadership of a monopolist. Other companies will emulate a successful strategy, product, or price, but originators may certainly not desire this - in fact they often do all they can legally do to prevent such direct competition.

The term "leadership" sometimes occurs (confusingly) to a winning position in a race. One can speak of a front-runner in a sprint or of the "leader" in an election or poll as in a position of leadership. But such "leadership" does not involve any influence processes, and the "leader" will have followers who may not willingly choose to function as followers. Once again: one can make an important distinction between "in the lead" and the process of leadership. Once again, leadership implies a relationship of power - the power to guide others.

Leading from the front, in a military sense, may imply foolhardiness and unnecessary self-exposure to danger: these do not necessarily make for successful long-term leadership strategies.

Scope of leadership

One can govern oneself, or one can govern the whole earth. In between, we may find leaders who operate primarily within:

Intertwined with such categories, and overlapping them, we find (for example) religious leaders (potentially with their own internal hierarchies), work-place leaders (executives, officers, senior/upper managers, middle managers, staff-managers, line-managers, team-leaders, supervisors ...) and leaders of voluntary associations.

Some anthropological ideas envisage a widespread (but by no means universal) pattern of progression in the organisation of society in ever-larger groups, with the needs and practices of leadership changing accordingly. Thus simple dispute resolution may become legalistic dispensation of justice before developing into proactive legislative activity. Some leadership careers parallel this sort of progression: today's school-board chairperson may become tomorrow's city councillor, then take in (say) a mayordom before graduating to nation-wide politics. Compare the cursus honorum in ancient Rome.

Orthogonality and leadership

Those who sing the praises of leadership or of certain types of leadership may encounter problems in implementing consistent leadership structures. For example, a pyramidical structure in which authority consistently emanates from the summit can kill all initiative and leave no path for grooming future leaders in the ranks of the lower levels. Similiarly, a belief in universal direct democracy may become unwieldy, and a system consisting of nothing but representative leaders may well become stymied in committees.

Thus many leadership systems promote different rules for different levels of leadership. Hereditary autocrats meet in the United Nations on equal representative terms with elected governments in a collegial leadership. Or individual local democracies may assign some of their powers to temporary dictators in emergencies, as in ancient Rome. Hierarchies intermingle with equality of opportunity at different levels.

Support-structures for leadership

Though advocates of the "big man" school of visionary leadership would have us believe that charisma and personality alone can work miracles, most leaders operate within a structure of supporters and executive agents who carry out and monitor the expressed or filtered-down will of the leader. This undercutting of the importance of leadership may serve as a reminder of the existence of the follower: compare followership. A more or less formal bureaucracy (in the Weberian sense) can throw up a colorless nonentity as an entirely effective leader: this phenomenon may occur (for example) in a politburo environment. Bureaucratic organizations can also raise incompetent people to levels of leadership (see The Peter Principle).

In modern dynamic environments formal bureaucratic organizations have started to become less common because of their inability to deal with fast-changing circumstances. Most modern business organizations (and some government departments) encourage what they see as "leadership skills" and reward identified potential leaders with promotions.

In a potential down-side to this sort of development, a big-picture grand-vision leader may foster another sort of hierarchy: a fetish of leadership amongst subordinate sub-leaders, encouraged to seize resources for their own sub-empires and to apply to the supreme leader only for ultimate arbitration.

Some leaders build coalitions and alliances: politcal parties abound with this type of leader. Still others depend on rapport with the masses: they labor on the shop-floor or stand in the front-line of battle, leading by example.

Determining what makes effective "leadership"

In comparing various leadership styles in many cultures, academic studies have examined the patterns in which leadership emerges and then fades, sometimes by natural succession according to established rules and sometimes by the imposition of brute force.

The simplest way to measure the effectiveness of leadership involves evaluating the size of the following that the leader can muster. By this standard, Adolf Hitler became a very effective leader - even if through delusional promises and coercive techniques. [7] However, this approach may measure power rather than leadership. To measure leadership more specifically, one may assess the extent of influence on the followers, that is, the amount of leading. This may involve testing the results of leadership activities against a goal, vision, or objective.

James MacGregor Burns introduced a normative element: an effective Burnsian leader will unite followers in a shared vision that will improve an organization and society at large. Burns calls leadership that delivers "true" value, integrity, and trust transformational leadership. He distinguishes such leadership from "mere" transactional leadership that builds power by doing whatever will get more followers. [8] But problems arise in quantifying the transformational quality of leadership - evaluation of that quality seems more difficult to quantify than merely counting the followers that the straw man of transactional leadership James MacGregor Burns has set as a primary standard for effectiveness. Thus transformational leadership requires an evaluation of quality, independent of the market demand that exhibits in the number of followers.

The functional leadership model conceives of leadership as a set of behaviors that helps a group perform a task, reach their goal, or perform their function. In this model, effective leaders encourage functional behaviors and discourage dysfunctional ones.

In the path-goal model of leadership, developed jointly by Martin Evans and Robert House and based on the "Expectancy Theory of Motivation", a leader has the function of clearing the path toward the goal(s) of the group, by meeting the needs of subordinates.

Some commentators use the metaphor of an orchestral conductor to describe the quality of the leadership process. An effective leader resembles an orchestra conductor in some ways. He/she has to somehow get a group of potentially diverse and talented people - many of whom have strong personalities - to work together toward a common output. Will the conductor harness and blend all the gifts his or her players possess? Will the players accept the degree of creative expression they have? Will the audience enjoy the sound they make? The conductor may have a determining influence on all of that.

Suggested qualities of leadership

Studies of leadership have suggested qualities that people often associate with leadership. They include:

  • Talent and technical/specific skill at some task at hand
  • Initiative and entrepreneurial drive
  • Charismatic inspiration - attractiveness to others and the ability to leverage this esteem to motivate others
  • Preoccupation with a rôle - a dedication that consumes much of leaders' life - service to a cause
  • A clear sense of purpose (or mission) - clear goals - focus - commitment
  • Results-orientation - directing every action towards a mission - prioritizing activities to spend time where results most accrue
  • Optimism - very few pessimists become leaders
  • Rejection of determinism - belief in one's ability to "make a difference"
  • Ability to encourage and nurture those that report to them - delegate in such a way as people will grow
  • Rôle models - leaders may adopt a persona that encapsulates their mission and lead by example
  • Self-knowledge (in non-bureaucratic structures)
  • Self-awareness - the ability to "lead" (as it were) one's own self prior to leading other selves simililarly
  • With regards to people and to projects, the ability to choose winners - recognizing that, unlike with skills, one cannot (in general) teach attitude. Note that "picking winners" ("choosing winners") carries implications of gamblers' luck as well as of the capacity to take risks, but "true" leaders, like gamblers but unlike "false" leaders, base their decisions on realistic insight (and usually on many other factors partially derived from "real" wisdom).
  • Understanding what others say, rather than listening to how they say things - this could partly sum this quality up as "walking in someone else's shoes" (to use a common cliché).

The approach of listing leadership qualities, often termed "trait theory", assumes certain traits or characteristics will tend to lead to effective leadership. Although trait theory has an intuitive appeal, difficulties may arrise in proving its tenets, and opponents frequently challenge this approach. The "strongest" versions of trait theory see these "leadership characteristics" as inate, and accordingly labels some people as "born leaders" due to their psychological makeup. On this reading of the theory, leadership development involves identifying and measuring leadership qualities, screening potential leaders from non-leaders, then training those with potential.

David McClelland, a Harvard-based researcher in the psychology of power and achievement, saw leadership skills, not so much as a set of traits, but as a pattern of motives. He claimed that successful leaders will tend to have a high need for power, a low need for affiliation, and a high level of what he called activity inhibition (one might call it self-control).

Situational leadership theory offers an alternative approach. It proceeds from the assumption that different situations call for different characteristics. According to this group of theories, no single optimal psychographic profile of a leader exists. The situational leadership model of Hersey and Blanchard, for example, suggest four leadership-styles and four levels of follower-development. For effectiveness, the model posits that the leadership-style must match the appropriate level of followership-development. In this model, leadership behaviour decomes a function not only of the characteristics of the leader, but of the characteristics of followers as well. Other situational leadership models introduce a variety of situational variables. These determinants include:

  • the nature of the task (structured or routine)
  • organizational policies, climate, and culture
  • the preferences of the leader's superiors
  • the expectations of peers
  • the reciprocal responses of followers

The contingency model of Vroom and Yetton uses other situational variables, including:

  • the nature of the problem
  • the requirements for accuracy
  • the acceptance of an initiative
  • time-constraints
  • cost constraints

However one determines leadership behaviour, one can categorize it into various leadership styles. Many ways of doing this exist. For example, the Managerial Grid Model, a behavioral leadership-model developed by Robert Blake and Jane Mouton in 1964, suggests five different leadership styles, based on leaders' strength of concern for people and their concern for goal achievement.

Kurt Lewin, Ronald Lipitt, and R. K. White identified three leadership styles: authoritarian, democratic, and laissez-faire, based on the amount of influence and power exercised by the leader.

The Fiedler contingency model bases the leader’s effectiveness on what Fred Fiedler called situational contingency. This results from the interaction of leadership style and situational favourableness (later called "situational control").

Leadership and vision

No matter how one defines leadership, it typically involves an element of vision -- except in cases of involuntary leadership. The vision provides direction to the influence process. A leader (or group of leaders) can have a vision of the future to aid them to move a group successfully towards this goal. This vision, for effectiveness, should allegedly:

  • appear as a simple, yet vibrant, image in the mind of the leader
  • describe a future state, credible and preferable to the present state
  • act as a bridge between the current state and a future optimum state
  • appear desirable enough to energize followers
  • succeed in speaking to followers at an emotional or spiritual level (logical appeals by themselves seldom muster a following)

For leadership to occur, according to this theory, some people ("leaders") must communicate the vision to others ("followers") in such a way that the followers adopt the vision as their own. Leaders must not just see the vision themselves, they must have the ability to get others to see it also. Numerous techniques aid in this process, including: narratives, metaphors, symbolic actions, leading by example, incentives, and penalties.

Stacey (1992) has suggested that the emphasis on vision puts an unrealistic burden on the leader. Such emphasis appears to perpetuate the myth that an organization must depend on a single, uncommonly talented individual to decide what to do. Stacey claims that this fosters a culture of dependency and conformity in which followers take no pro-active incentives and do not think independently.

Leadership's relation with management

Some commentators link leadership closely with the idea of management; some would even regard the two as synonymous. If one accepts this premise, one can view leadership as:

  • centralized or decentralized
  • broad or focused
  • decision-oriented or morale-centred
  • intrinsic or derived from some authority

Any of the bipolar labels traditionally ascribed to management style could also apply to leadership style. Hersey and Blanchard use this approach: they claim that management merely consists of leadership applied to business situations; or in other words: management forms a sub-set of the broader process of leadership. They put it this way: "Leadership occurs any time one attempts to influence the behavior of an individual or group, regardless of the reason. . . . Management is a kind of leadership in which the achievement of organizational goals is paramount." (Hersey, P. and Blanchard, K. : 1982 : page 3)

However, a clear distinction between management and leadership may nevertheless prove useful. This would allow for a reciprocal relationship between leadership and management, implying that an effective manager should possess leadership skills, and an effective leader should demonstrate management skills.

Abraham Zaleznik (1977), for example, delineated differences between leadership and management. He saw leaders as inspiring visionaries, concerned about substance; while managers he views as planners who have concerns with process. Warren Bennis (1989) further explicated a dichotomy between managers and leaders. He drew twelve distinctions between the two groups:

  • Managers administer, leaders innovate
  • Managers ask how and when, leaders ask what and why
  • Managers focus on systems, leaders focus on people
  • Managers do things right, leaders do the right things
  • Managers maintain, leaders develop
  • Managers rely on control, leaders inspire trust
  • Managers have a short-term perspective, leaders have a longer-term perspective
  • Managers accept the status-quo, leaders challenge the status-quo
  • Managers have an eye on the bottom line, leaders have an eye on the horizon
  • Managers imitate, leaders originate
  • Managers emulate the classic good soldier, leaders are their own person
  • Managers copy, leaders show originality

Paul Birch (1999) also sees a distinction between leadership and management. He observed that, as a broad generalization, managers concerned themselves with tasks while leaders concerned themselves with people. Birch does not suggest that leaders do not focus on "the task." Indeed, the things that characterise a great leader include the fact that they achieve. The difference lies in the leader realising that the achievement of the task comes about through the goodwill and support of others, while the manager may not.

This goodwill and support originates in the leader seeing people as people, not as another resource for deployment in support of "the task". The manager often has the role of organizing resources to get something done. People form one of these resources, and many of the worst managers treat people as just another interchangeable item. A leader has the role of causing others to follow a path he/she has laid out or a vision he/she has articulated in order to achieve a task. Often, people see the task as subordinate to the vision. For instance, an organization might have the overall task of generating profit, but a good leader may see profit as a by-product that flows from whatever aspect of their vision differentiates their company from the competition.

Leadership does not only manifest itself as purely a business phenomenon. Many people can think of an inspiring leader they have encountered who has nothing whatever to do with business: a politician, an officer in the armed forces, a Scout or Guide leader, a teacher, etc. Similarly, management does not occur only as a purely business phenomenon. Again, we can think of examples of people that we have met who fill the management niche in non-business organisations. Non-business organisations should find it easier to articulate a non-money-driven inspiring vision that will support true leadership. However, often this does not occur.

Differences in the mix of leadership and management can define various management styles. Some management styles tend to de-emphasize leadership. Included in this group one could include participatory management, democratic management, and collaborative management styles. Other management styles, such as authoritarian management, micro-management, and top-down management, depend more on a leader to provide direction. Note, however, that just because an organisation has no single leader giving it direction, does not mean it necessarily has weak leadership. In many cases group leadership (multiple leaders) can prove effective. Having a single leader (as in dictatorship) allows for quick and decisive decision-making when needed as well as when not needed. Group decision-making sometimes earns the derisive label "committee-itis" because of the longer times required to make decisions, but group leadership can bring more expertise, experience, and perspectives through a democratic process.

Patricia Pitcher (1994) has challenged the bifurcation into leaders and managers. She used a factor analysis technique on data collected over 8 years, and concluded that three types of leaders exist, each with very different psychological profiles. She characterises one group as imaginative, inspiring, visionary, entrepreneurial, intuitive, daring, and emotional, and calls them "artists". In a second grouping she places "craftsmen" as well-balanced, steady, reasonable, sensible, predictable, and trustworthy. Finally she identifies "technocrats" as cerebral, detail-oriented, fastidious, uncompromising, and hard-headed. She speculates that no one profile offers a preferred leadership style. She claims that if we want to build, we should find an "artist leader"; if we want to solidify our position, we should find a "craftsman leader"; and if we have an ugly job that needs to get done (like downsizing), we should find a "technocratic leader." Pitcher also observed that a balanced leader exhibiting all three sets of traits occurs extremely rarely: she found none in her study.

Leadership by a group

In contrast to individual leadership, some organizations have adopted group leadership. In this situation, more than one person provides direction to the group as a whole. Some organizations have taken this approach in hopes of increasing creativity, reducing costs, or downsizing. Others may see the tradional leadership os a boss as costing too much in team performance. In some situations, the maintenance of the boss becomes too expensive - either by draining the resources of the group as a whole, or by impeding the creativity within the team, even unintentionally.

A common example of group leadership involves cross-functional teams. A team of people with diverse skills and from all parts of an organization assembles to lead a project. A team structure can involve sharing power equally on all issues, but more commonly uses rotating leadership. The team member(s) best able to handle any given phase of the project become(s) the temporary leader(s).

For example, the Orpheus orchestra has performed for over thirty years without a conductor -- that is, without a sole leader. As a team of over 25 members, it has drawn discriminating audiences, and has produced over 60 recordings for Deutsche Grammophon in successful competition with other world-class orchestras.[9]

Rather than an autocratic or charismatic conductor deciding the overall conception of a work and then dictating how each individual is to perform the individual tasks, the Orpheus team generally selects a different "core group" for each piece of music. The core group provides leadership in working out the details of the piece, and presents their ideas to the whole team. Members of the whole team then participate in refining the final conception, rehearsal, and product, including checking from various places in the auditorium how the sound balances and verifying the quality of the final recording.

At times the entire Orpheus team may follow a single leader, but whom the team follows rotates from task to task, depending on the capabilities of its members.

The orchestra has developed seminars and training sessions for adapting the Orpheus Process to business.[10]


As a compromise between individual leadership and an open group, leadership structures of two or three people or entities occur commonly. Ancient Rome preferred two consuls to a single king, and the Roman Empire grew to accommodate two Emperors - those of the East and of the West - simultaneously. The Middle Ages saw leadership divided between the secular and spiritual realms - between Emperor and Pope. Some groups - often left-wing or Green in orientation - employ a co-leader structure today.

Triumvirates have long served to balance leadership ambitions - notably in Rome in the first century BC, but also as recently as in the Soviet Union troikas of the 20th century. Compare the separation of powers (legislative, judicial and executive) formalised (for example) in the constitution of the United States of America.

Divided leadership

Whereas sometimes one can readily and definitively identify the locus of leadership, in other circumstances the situation remains obscured. Pre-modern Japan offers a classical example: the emperors provided symbolic and religious leadership, but the shoguns embodied virtually all political and administrative leadership.

Similar dichotomies appear in many places and in many periods. Any constitutional monarch has a potentially confusing relationship with the day-to-day leader (typically a prime minister) who remains (at least theoretically) subordinate - socially as well as politically. Regents may stand against monarchs (and their supporters) during the minority or absence of those monarchs. Heads of state may operate at cross-purposes with heads of government. Political leaders may or may not align closely with religious leaders. And in federal-type systems, regional leadership and its potentially different systems may cross swords with national leaders. Not to mention the potentially conflicting leadership manifestations of boards of directors and of Chief Executives.

Leader relationships with followers

Greiner’s study of the language of U.S. Presidents examined the relationship between leader and followers and observed that changes have taken place in the presidential use of words that define the leader and the community as one. Modern US presidents have an observed tendency to make more use of inclusive words like we, us and our in their inaugural speeches. The use of inclusive words may suggest an effort by these democratically selected leaders to make the community work together to solve problems collectively. (See ERIC document ED468083 [11])

Historical views on leadership

Aristocratic thinkers have postulated that leadership depends on one's blue blood or genes: monarchy takes an extreme view of the same idea, and may prop up its assertions against the claims of mere aristocrats by invoking divine sanction: see the divine right of kings. Contrariwise, more democratically-inclined theorists have pointed to examples of meritocratic leaders, such as the Napoleonic marshals profiting from careers open to talent.

In the autocratic/paternalistic strain of thought, traditionalists recall the role of leadership of the Roman pater familias. feminist thinking, on the other hand, may damn such models as patriarchal and posit against them emotionally-attuned, responsive, and consensual empathetic guidance and matriarchies.

Comparable to the Roman tradition, the views of Confucianism on "right living" relate very much to the ideal of the (male) scholar-leader and his benevolent rule, buttressed by a tradition of filial piety.

Within the context of Islam, views on the nature, scope and inheritance of leadership have played a major role in shaping sects and their history. See caliphate.

In the 19th century, the elaboration of anarchist thought called the whole concept of leadership into question. One response came with Leninism, which demanded an élite group of disciplined cadres to act as the vanguard of a socialist revolution, bringing into existence the dictatorship of the proletariat.

Other historical views of leadership have addressed the seeming contrasts between secular and religious leadership. The doctrines of Caesaro-papism have recurred and had their detractors over several centuries. Christian thinking on leadership has often emphasized stewardship of divinely-provided resources - human and material - and their deployment in accordance with a Divine plan. Compare servant leadership.

For a more general take on leadership in politics, compare the concept of the statesman.

Specific theories of leadership

James MacGregor Burns

James MacGregor Burns (1978, p. 2) wrote that a study of the definition of the word leadership revealed 130 definitions. However, several generally-accepted variations on the definition appear in the management and leadership literature.

Burns concluded by presenting five characteristics of leadership, namely:

  1. Leadership is collective (p. 452). Burns regards the notion of one-person leadership as “a contradiction in terms”, because both leaders and followers must exist. Also, an organization may have multiple leaders all acting in consort with one another.
  2. Leadership is dissension (p. 453). Burns claims that leadership coexists with dissent. Indeed, much of the growth of any organization centers on the management/leadership of dissent – except in times of war.
  3. Leadership is causative (p. 454). True Burnsian leadership affects the motives of individuals and groups of peoples and alters the course of the organizational history. It causes positive change.
  4. Leadership is morally purposeful (p. 455). Burns sees leadership as goal-oriented, with leaders and followers pointing the way to some future state of the organization with plans about how those goals might be met.
  5. Transforming leadership is elevating (p. 455). Engagement between leaders and followers takes place on a moral – but not a moralistic - plane, as both leaders and followers rise to live more principled lives.

Ronald Heifitz

Ronald Heifitz described the difference between a descriptive view and a prescriptive view of leadership. A descriptive view describes leadership and how it occurs, and a prescriptive view suggests how it should occur. The notion of "adaptive work" forms a central concept of Heifetz’s prescriptive view. Heifetz pointed out (p. 37) that people fail to adapt to new and unsettling situations through six avoidance mechanisms:

  1. blaming others
  2. finding scapegoats (to the extent that this differs from blaming)
  3. externalizing the enemy
  4. denying that a problem exists
  5. jumping to conclusions
  6. finding a distracting issue.

In a prescriptive view, the leader would squarely face the problem and avoid the six surface-level solutions of the non-leader. A true leader help a community face reality and deal with the issues: finding solutions where none previously existed. Using the 1950s television character, the Lone Ranger, as an example, we see the Ranger in a weekly episode, moving from frontier town to frontier town, discovering problems wherever he goes, fixing the problems and riding off into the sunset. In this metaphor, the Ranger fixes the symptom, but not the problem. A Lone Ranger non-leader would catch fish to feed the poor while a true leader would teach the poor how to catch fish and would motivate them to do so. The true leader finds a way to help the community engage the problem and collectively find a solution. For more detail, see Heifetz, R. (1994). Leadership without easy answers. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

George Terry

George Terry (Terry, G. 1960) has defined leadership as: "the activity of influencing people to strive willingly for group objectives". If we define leadership simply as "influencing others to some purpose" and we define followership as "becoming influenced by others to accept (willingly or un willingly) some purpose", then leadership and followership emerge as two sides of the same coin. In this scenario, leadership - whether successful or not - has not occurred until at least one follower joins in. Likewise, no followership exists without someone or something (not necessarily a leader) to follow. However, in this latter case, a "leader" need not exercise deliberate or even conscious leadership - that is, followers can follow someone who is not trying to lead. Some see "unconscious leadership" as a dubious concept, however. Many, using a different definition of leadership, would claim that it does not classify as leadership at all - simply because no deliberate intention to lead exists. Unconscious "leading by example" (as the phrase has it) may nevertheless exemplify such "leadership".


See also:

External links


  • Argyris, C. (1976) Increasing Leadership Effectiveness, Wiley, New York, 1976 (even though published in 1976, this still remains a "standard" reference text)
  • Bennis, W. (1989) On Becoming a Leader, Addison Wesley, New York, 1989
  • Burns, J. M. (1978). Leadership, New York, NY: Harper Torchbooks.
  • Greiner, K. (2002). The inaugural speech. ERIC Accession Number ED468083 [12].
  • Heifetz, R. (1994). Leadership without easy answers. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
  • Machiavelli, The Prince, 1530
  • Laubach, R. (2005) Leadership is Influence
  • Pitcher, P. (1994 French) Artists, Craftsmen, and Technocrats: The dreams realities and illusions of leadership, Stoddart Publishing, Toronto, 2nd English edition, 1997
  • Roberts, W. (1987) Leadership Secrets of Attila the Hun
  • Stacey, R. (1992) Managing Chaos, Kogan-Page, London, 1992
  • Terry, G. (1960) The Principles of Management, Richard Irwin Inc, Homewood Ill, pg 5.
  • Zaleznik, A. (1977) "Managers and Leaders: Is there a difference?", Harvard Business Review, May-June, 1977

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