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Leadership Research

The Definition of Leadership From Several Points of View

Leadership is a word and a concept that is used in a variety of circumstances; it is not always used correctly, and leadership is not often fully understood. Sometimes “leadership” is used interchangeably with “management” and that is incorrect because a “leader” does not have to be in a position of authority to lead. Those in authority are certainly obliged to lead, and expected to lead, albeit many executives and managers have never been effective in motivating or leading others. This paper will review and present several definitions of leadership, including military leadership, “servant leadership,” sports leadership – and it will present the difference between managing and leading.

In the Journal of Leadership Studies (Funk, 43-45) the author points out that “while virtually every definition of leadership…in both scholarly and practitioner-oriented writings focuses on the knowledge, skills, abilities, and traits of the leader,” there is no “reasonable agreement” on precisely which “traits and behaviors” are indeed leadership-related. In a survey of 110 “managers, administrators and professionals,” the majority said leadership was “a skill or ability,” but some defined it as a “role or position.”

The function of leadership is to “…create change within the context of a social process that creates leadership relationships.” In other words, leadership is a social process, and that needs to be taken into consideration by those who would presume to have the talent and ambition to be great leaders.

In the journal History Today, the leadership style of Queen Elizabeth I is reviewed, and it is pertinent because the queen was a “female monarch in a male world” (Doran, 29). Among viewers of the recent BBC TV special on Elizabeth, the queen scored highest “on her bravery and leadership qualities”; even though she displayed “a mixture of radiating charm and unpredictable rages,” and “enjoyed the flattery” of her underlings, she was “immensely loyal to those she trusted.” Men learned after being around her for a while that they “could present her with unwelcome advice without risking their necks.” That ability to listen to views contrary to one’s own is a classic example of good leadership.

Another History Today article extols the leadership of British Vice Admiral Horatio Nelson, who led British ships into battle in the late 1700s, defeating, among other notable forces, Napoleon’s fleet in the Battle of the Nile in 1798. His leadership philosophy, according to historic records in his own words:

“A commander gives his orders in a manner that ensures the subordinates understand his intentions, their own missions, and the context of those missions” (Vincent, 19). Moreover, Nelson went on, “Subordinates are told what effect they are to achieve and the reason why it needs to be achieved.” That is good advice for today’s leaders in business and in community activities; in other words, explain the need to perform certain tasks and duties and why they are pivotal, don’t just bellow out orders to subordinates and volunteers.

Nelson’s style promoted “decentralized command, freedom and speed of action, and initiative,” Vincent’s article in History Today reveals. In the British Broadcasting Corporation’s Web site readers learn that Nelson “joined the navy at age 12,” and rose to the rank of “captain at age 20.” Clearly, Nelson had leadership potential to build on; he was “a complex leader who balanced a personal longing for honor and glory with a compassion and respect for his men.”

Sports leadership: What are the important concepts of communication that best support the values of leadership needed in today’s sporting world? Since sports is really just a mirror of society, research into various kinds of leadership in the corporate world and the community fits well into the sporting genre as well.

In Albert Mehrabian’s book Silent Messages (Mehrabian 53) the author alludes to a confusing kind of communication called “psychological disturbance,” which coaches as leaders should pay attention to. Loaded with damaging inconsistency, psychological disturbance amounts to nice words which are spoken but the body language elicits negativity. An example is mommy saying in a lilting voice, “Come and give your mommy a kiss,” but when the child arrives, she turns away from because his hands are dirty. “[The child] does not know what to do. He loses either way.” If he shrinks back and rejects his mother, she’ll be upset, but he doesn’t want to risk coming closer and being rejected.

This example could play out in a coaching environment too; the coach is praising the player with familiar words of enthusiasm, but his body language tells the player he is disappointed and is going to start another player in the next game.

Servant leadership: Authors Lawrence J. Lad and David Luechauer quote Juana Bordas as saying that Servant-Leadership has “very old roots in many of the indigenous cultures.” Servant-Leader founder Robert Greenleaf writes that the Servant-Leader is a servant first. He or she must have the natural feeling that he or she wants to be of service. Do not lead, do not follow, but serve first. Then, “conscious choice brings one to aspire to lead,” Greenleaf writes, quoted in Lad et al. “The best test is: do those served grow as persons; do they, while being served, become healthier, wiser, freer, more autonomous, more likely themselves to become servants?”

What servant-leadership does in part is do away with the autocratic, hierarchical kinds of leadership, and approach leadership from a more ethical point of view, a sharing in the decision-making process so that all are on board when the whistle blows and the game begins. The basic idea works for sports as well as for business.

In the old days, coaches and managers viewed people as objects, but that view is shifting, in part due to the concepts of Servant-leadership. The central meaning came to Greenleaf after reading Hermann Hesse’s short novel Journey to the East; Greenleaf concluded that a great leader first serves others, and “true leadership emerges from those whose primary motivation is a deep desire to help others.” By first serving, then leading, the leader has a hands-on grasp of what the priorities are, and do those being served (whether baseball players or office staffers) become healthier while being served? Do they grow as persons, become smarter and more likely “themselves to become servants?”

According to an article in Asia Pacific Journal of Human Resources (Latemore, et al, 76), leadership “is one of the most observed but least understood phenomena facing the world.” And while it’s not easy to find a great definition for a young person to follow who wants to develop leadership potential, the article says “most philosophers agree” a leader must have “the ability to energize, the knowledge to identify common ground, the skills to manage, the vision to see the future, the character to stay moral, and the passion to lead.”

Using the example of the classic poem Beowulf, an article in Forbes (Post, 1999) suggests, above all, if you boast you can do something, “deliver on your promises,” and before taking credit for an accomplishment, “beware unfinished tasks.”

That advice about leaders taking credit for accomplishments prior to “unfinished tasks” could well be given to President George W. Bush; the president participated in a “Mission Accomplished” celebration aboard the aircraft carrier USS Abraham Lincoln in May, 2003, a few months after the U.S. toppled Saddam Hussein in Iraq. Bush landed on the deck in a Navy fighter jet, which was a first for a U.S. president, and attracted a lot of attention in the media. An enormous banner was attached to the ship announcing “Mission Accomplished.” However, nearly four years later, the U.S. military is bogged down in a very violent situation in Iraq, and it would seem that the only accomplishment is that indeed, Hussein is gone. But the bloody violence that is part of an ongoing civil war kills hundreds of people each week, including civilians, insurgents, and American military personnel. Real leadership at this point will be needed not only from the military in Iraq, but also from the executive and congressional branches of government.

Are leaders born? Or are they made? That question has been discussed among thinking people for as long as there has been a need for men and women to take charge in tough situations, be that management, administration, community, family or military leadership situations. But as to whether those leaders are born or made, a great many authors and scholars take the position that heredity doesn’t play nearly as important a role as experience and training do.

The English natural scientist Francis Galton conducted research on thirty-two eminent military leaders among twenty-seven families. Within those 27 families, Galton located “twelve fathers, thirteen brothers, and eight sons” were “eminent to a somewhat lesser degree as military commanders” (Pennington, et al, 102). With that data in hand, Galton wrote that a “peculiar type of ability is largely transmitted” by military commanders to their offspring – in other words, men are products of their environments, and growing up in a military family is the kind of environment that provides ideal informal leadership training.

But the “product of environment” theory doesn’t always hold up, because Napoleon’s father and his mother had abilities that were excellent but neither of them showed any outstanding leadership competencies.

And in fact Napoleon’s brothers were given “exceptional opportunities to exercise such abilities” but each of them turned out to be dismal failures (Pennington 103). The authors of this book (The Psychology of Military Leadership) also point out that in George Washington’s family there was but one leader – George himself – and the same was true of Abraham Lincoln. “The inevitable conclusion,” Pennington writes, “is that a man is not ‘born a leader.’” The authors go on to point out – bear in mind this book was published in 1943 – that leadership should be looked upon as a “product of [the] ability to learn” along with environmental factors.

Is leadership a science? Or is leadership an art, to be practiced and fine-tuned like a musical piece or watercolor landscape painting? And is leadership the same in industry and in business as it is in the military? Some people are much better than others at leading – why?

Leadership skills can be greatly enhanced through “personal study and reflection,” Fitton explains. To gain insights by studying the wisdom and philosophies of great leaders — not necessarily just military leaders but also poets, scholars, corporate leaders and writers – is what Fitton’s book is all about.

Part of being a good leader is having ambition; Henry David Thoreau wrote, “In the long run men hit only what they aim at.” Therefore, he added, “though they should fail immediately, they had better aim at something high” (Fitton 15). Boldness is also an important ingredient when it comes to developing leadership, although there can be a “catch” in the pursuit of boldness, according to Confucius, who wrote this in 500 B.C.: “Men of principle are sure to be bold, but those who are bold may not always be men of principle” (Fitton 24).

Character as a word is used so often in everything from sports to politics, but in terms of leadership skills, character is a true test of whether or not a leader earns the respect of those he purports to lead. Thomas Jefferson’s use of a simile is apt: “In matters of principle, stand like a rock; in matters of taste, swim with the current” (Fitton 34). And Abraham Lincoln uses metaphor and simile to paint a picture of character: “Character is like a tree and reputation like its shadow. The shadow is what we think of it; the tree is the real thing” (Fitton 35). William Shakespeare put it succinctly when he indirectly / literarily scoffed at phoniness and pretensions: “Men should be what they seem” (Fitton 38).

Thomas Jefferson said, “The most valuable of all talents is that of never using two words when one will do”; and William Shakespeare wrote, “Men of a few words are the best men.” Both those quotes give brevity a lot of weight in the continuing definition of leadership (Fitton 47, 49). Being cool under pressure, and knowing which words to invoke, is the cogent statement taken from Field Marshall Sir William Slim in 1959 (Fitton 49): “In a battle nothing is ever as good or as bad as the first reports of excited men would have it.”

And Mark Twain – from his novel, Pudd’nhead Wilson’s Calendar – mixed the concepts of fear and courage into two dramatic lines: “Courage is resistance to fear, mastery of fear – not absence of fear. Except a creature be part coward it is not a compliment to say it is brave” (Fitton 113).

Is a manager also a leader? Does a leader need to have good managerial skills? The answer to those questions should be “yes,” but the line between the two is hazy and therefore much discussion has been generated with reference to the difference between a manager and a leader.

A manager’s job description does not identify him or her as a leader per se, and a leader is certainly not automatically a manager in any sense of the word – albeit, a quality leader can and should provide management services and a good manager can also provide valuable leadership skills to any organization. But there is some confusion about the two terms, and Abraham Zaleznik (Zaleznik 1214) writes in his essay “The Leadership Gap.”

First, a manager, Zaleznik writes, focuses on the decision-making process, “rather than ultimate events.” Typical managers are thought of us “hard working, intelligent, analytical and tolerant of others.” Leaders, meantime, are “more dramatic in style and unpredictable in behavior” and are often times seen as having “personal magnetism” and also “commitment to their own undertakings and destinies.”

And here is where Zaleznik’s analysis alludes to managerial goals as being rooted in the “structure of the organization” (Zaleznik 124); and Zaleznik is correct when he writes that a manager generally seeks to “convert win-lose situations into win-win situations.” Leaders on the other hand, he insists, “tend to feel somewhat apart from their environment and other people; their relationship toward individuals in a group,” he continues, “and their own approach to work are more important to them than group membership and work roles.”

Leaders must be responsible for the change, and the only way they can assure that change will happen smoothly and effectively is to have the confidence of those followers who must believe in that leader and trust that leader to show the way to change that is beneficial and complete.

What about the leader who is more of a manager than a true leader? Can he be trained to move out of the world of crunching numbers and doing paperwork and into the world of inspiring those under him with his spark of enthusiasm and his fearless quest to achieve more? Of course he or she can; in the great majority of instances, leadership is learned, not given as a birthright. Managers can learn to be better leaders and leaders can be trained to acquire management skills. It’s all a matter of willingness and effort.