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What is leadership?

By Brad Palmer

13 min read

What is leadership?

Leadership is a broad term and often challenging to quantify. Within an organization, however, it is vital to establish what outstanding leadership means as it helps to inform your culture in the present and succession in the bigger picture. 

We see news items about “great leaders” every day. Whether the topic is politics or business, leaders’ decisions and what they do and say can be polarizing. A leadership style that might work for one company or segment of the population might not be suitable for another, further defying attempts to establish a standard definition. 

Complicating matters even further, some in high-level leadership positions are ineffective, while those who demonstrate a strong capacity to lead may not have any formal authority. In the above scenarios, the individual’s deeds, not words, make the difference. Action inspires trust and energizes the people around them to perform their best and stay focused on the company’s mission. 

So, whether you’re hoping to advance your career or in the process of ideating your company’s future, today’s deep-dive into leadership will help you understand the qualities of great leaders, how leadership and management differ, and provide actionable tips on how to become the leader your organization deserves. 

Table of contents

The definition of a leader
The roles and responsibilities of a leader
Types of leadership styles
How to become a leader
Challenges leaders face
The underpinnings of great leaders
Final thoughts

The definition of a leader

Leadership can be defined in various ways. However, the most influential leaders have a strong vision and can communicate it clearly and inspire others to work toward achieving that goal. 

Great leaders have influence, underscoring their ability to rally large groups of people to their cause. However, this quality is a double-edged sword as there have been many times in history where influential and charismatic leaders have influenced entire populations, and not always to a positive conclusion. 

With that in mind, let’s also say that great leaders take responsibility for the outcomes of their words and actions. It’s not enough to be a visionary—which most great leaders are—as failing to take responsibility would place undue onus on others if things go wrong. 

For example, let’s say a company leader changes a significant company policy or launches a product that isn’t thoroughly tested. Perhaps they met with opposition from colleagues or experts but chose to proceed anyway, knowing the risks. Standing behind that decision is essential, for better or worse. Anything less would demonstrate poor judgment and lack of leadership, especially if blame were assigned or shifted elsewhere.

Further to the point, leadership relies on building and maintaining strong relationships. When employees, colleagues, customers, and other stakeholders trust in their leaders, they are empowered in many ways. Strong relationships are trustworthy, inclusive, open, transparent, and collaborative, encouraging people to strive for their highest potential as they traverse their own career paths. 

Leaders are also change makers. They have an intrinsic ability to see where improvement is needed and will strive to forge pathways to manifest that change. When the above mentioned traits are well-formed in a leader, almost any change is possible, as people will understand the direction and trust that their leader is taking them in the right direction. 

Key characteristics of a leader

Exceptional leadership qualities aside, and realizing not every company has a budding Steve Jobs in its ranks, how do we recognize raw leadership talent in its early stages? Most leaders have four qualities in common.

  • They are supportive. Supportive leaders are active listeners. They encourage interaction, involve others in decision-making, bestow praise when appropriate, and facilitate others to do their best work.
  • They focus on results. A results-oriented leader can keep their teams motivated and focused towards a common goal. As a result, teams feel like they are involved in something bigger and will take ownership of the quality of the work. They are empathetic and ready to problem-solve if roadblocks arise, even if the solution is unconventional. Their transparency enables and supports teamwork and collaboration. 
  • They actively seek outside perspectives. The best leaders encourage and are always open to feedback as they know it illuminates blind spots and invites valuable perspectives. Doing so requires complete openness and the ability to listen and share perspectives without allowing bias to enter the equation. Exceptional leaders know in their gut what the right direction may be, but they want their people to come to their own conclusions and own the decisions. Doing so fosters trust and loyalty that resonates through every interaction.
  • They are innate problem-solvers. Leadership means being able to chart a course through uncertainty. The foundations of this trait are the ability to see the big picture, identify options, evaluate, and implement, but the best leaders don’t carry this burden alone. Leaders know their teams will emerge stronger when they can work together toward a solution and will do everything in their power to support the journey, providing encouragement, guidance, and resources when needed. 

Bring your people together

The roles and responsibilities of a leader

Now that we’ve painted a picture of the characteristics of exceptional leadership, let’s drill down on the roles and responsibilities that flesh out their days. 

Setting a vision

Leaders are responsible for establishing a vision of what the organization can achieve or will become. This vision provides purpose for the organization, inspires people to join the mission, and contributes to the success of the whole. Leaders will achieve more for their stockholders, stakeholders, and society when they can inspire others with their vision. 

Motivating and inspiring the team

Leaders can motivate and inspire their teams through praise, celebrating wins, and generally lifting others up. However, motivation isn’t about bestowing praise when constructive feedback is warranted. When course correction is required, they will provide support and strategize ways to improve and overcome barriers to success. A leader’s input can range broadly from encouragement to full-on mentorship, but it’s always well-placed and appropriate to the situation.

Making decisions and problem-solving

No matter how capable teams may be, a great leader is always ready to take the lead when things get tough. Their oversight and insight allow them to meet complex challenges, make hard decisions, and guide their people toward a successful outcome. Problem-solving requires creative thinking, encouraging innovation, and supporting effective conflict resolution, critical thinking, and risk management. Problem-solving and decision-making skills enable leaders to address issues, navigate challenges, and take advantage of opportunities as they arise. 

Leading by example

When leaders lead by example, their behavior influences the conduct and attitudes of others, empowering teams to act, resolve conflicts quickly, and overcome challenges as they arise. For instance, if company policy is focused on cost reduction, excessive spending on nonessential items would send the wrong message. Leading by example assumes that the leader will get their hands dirty when needed, listen to others, and deliver on their promises. Such conduct shows that the leader genuinely values people and cares about the well-being of their employees and the organization as a whole. 

Types of leadership styles

Leadership has many faces, and no two leaders are alike. Though all great leaders share the traits and attributes outlined above, each approaches leadership differently based on their personality. 

As mentioned previously, no one style is appropriate in all cases. Depending on the organization or situation, leaders may exhibit elements of one or more of the following leadership styles. 

Generally, leadership styles can be described based on the following five categories: 

1. Autocratic leadership

Autocratic leadership is authoritarian. These leaders tend to exert control over all decisions and may not solicit input from others to inform their decision-making. They leverage their own ideas, which are often represented as absolute or inscrutable. 

While the autocratic style doesn’t work in all workplace scenarios, it has pros and cons. On the plus side, it ensures structure, allows for quick decision-making, and establishes a transparent, unambiguous chain of command. Conversely, autocratic leadership can be bad for team morale and may negate or overlook creative solutions from team members.

2. Democratic leadership

Under democratic leadership, individuals are encouraged to participate in decision-making. Ideas are freely exchanged, and discussion flows, while the leader is there to provide guidance and steer the trajectory of the group. Many feel that democratic leadership is the most effective leadership style as it leads to higher engagement, productivity, and improved morale. 

Though there are many pros to democratic leadership, there is a risk of failure due to poor communication, poor decision-making, or undue bias. In these cases, strong leaders can direct and guide the group to encourage better decision-making and ensure everyone in the group has a voice. 

3. Transformational leadership

Transformational leaders are change makers. They bring passion, creativity, and enthusiasm to the group and tend to be directly involved in the work. They want to see every group member succeed and will do everything in their power to infuse projects and people with their enthusiasm. 

On the plus side, transformational leaders encourage creativity and learning, often helping team members discover new ways to approach problems. They encourage people as individuals, recognize unique contributions, and frequently serve as a role model for those they lead. 

However, although transformational leaders can be incredible, their styles may not be the best in all situations. For example, a transactional approach might be more appropriate if team members require more guidance and direction or if the goals are more short-term and concise.

4. Transactional leadership

Transactional leadership leverages a reward-reprimand approach to achieve team goals. This style is grounded in structure, supervision, performance, and quantifiable outcomes. Team goals are clearly understood, and when members hit their targets, they are rewarded. If they miss the mark, they are reprimanded. 

The assumption here is that people perform better when they know what’s expected of them. Following direction is the goal. Subordinates are monitored to ensure they complete their tasks. This type of leadership is also referred to as managerial leadership. 

On the plus side, teams understand and are completely focused on their goals. A reward-based system is often a motivator, and success is easy to measure. However, not all workers are motivated this way, and this style does not encourage creativity as it applies some of the hallmarks of autocratic leadership. Goals achievable using this style tend to be short-term, such as preparing for a big event or achieving sales targets during a campaign.

5. Laissez-faire leadership

Laissez-faire leadership is, by definition, hands-off. It relies on delegation, allowing team members to decide and act on their own volition. While this style may work for some teams, it tends to have the lowest productivity levels. Leaders can check in more frequently and provide feedback when needed to buck this trend. 

When a lot of high-level expertise is extant in the group, a laissez-faire approach may work well. In this scenario, leaders would be expected to provide training and support to ensure teams have the knowledge and tools they need to succeed, and teams would be accountable to the leader for their output. 

Pros of laissez-faire leadership include faster decision-making, improved innovation, and enhanced professional growth. Cons may include a lack of clarity around projects or tasks and low accountability. Leaders may be seen as too passive, unconcerned, or uninvolved, which can be remedied with regular check-ins, one-on-one meetings, providing feedback, and peer reviews to ensure all members of the group have the expertise they need to perform at their peak. 

How to become a leader

Do you know what kind of a leader you would be? Here are a few tips and thoughts to get you started.

Self-assessment: understanding your leadership style

Having read through the descriptions of various leadership styles, there may be one that speaks to you more than others. That said, it’s essential to understand when certain leadership styles may be more appropriate to the situation or the team. 

Like any journey of self-realization, self-reflection will indicate aspects of your character that are ripe for growth. Does authoritarian leadership make you uncomfortable? You may need to cultivate assertiveness. Does it make you nervous to leave people to their own devices? Learn to respect others’ knowledge and know that you don’t have to understand every nuance of a job to be able to lead those doing it. 

Knowing yourself, cultivating self-awareness, and developing a capacity to understand how others see you provides visibility into your own strengths and weaknesses. Leaders with high self-awareness have better relationships with their teams and colleagues and are generally more effective in the workplace.

Building essential leadership skills

Some leadership skills are intangible. However, all great leaders possess these skills, all of which can be learned and cultivated:

  • Adaptability: staying on the cutting edge/ahead of the curve
  • Creativity and innovation: learn to push beyond your limits
  • Critical thinking: linking ideas with action
  • Ability to motivate others: encourages engagement and productivity
  • Conflict resolution: the ability to keep the peace
  • Relationship-building: the pillar of a high-performing organization
  • Decision-making: leading with confidence and conviction
  • Negotiation: winning against all odds, finding a win-win for all

Gaining experience and learning from mentors

If your career is on a trajectory to the C-suite, every step you take on that journey is an opportunity to grow and develop. Mentorship is often the best path to success. If there is a leader in your organization or life who is willing to guide you, don’t hesitate to step up and ask. The best path to success is to follow in the footsteps of someone you respect. 

Your company may have mentorship opportunities, so don’t be shy to ask. Most organizations prefer to hire from within. Stepping up in this manner shows initiative, an essential leadership attribute.

Continuous learning and improvement

Great leaders are lifelong learners. Continuous improvement is vital to ensure you stay ahead of trends. New ideas foster discussions and innovation that could mean the difference between a successful company and a global industry leader. The world’s most innovative and influential leaders always want to improve their products, services, and themselves. Doing so requires commitment in the extreme, but it will never be boring!

Challenges leaders face

Even the best leaders face challenges each day. How they manage them, their words and deeds, is a mark of their character. Here are some of the most common challenges leaders face daily:

Maintaining team morale

Maintaining morale can be a challenge, even for leading companies. Great leaders must face these challenges head-on, motivating and refocusing their teams to keep them on track. 

Acknowledgment, recognition, and encouragement help to build team morale and strengthen internal culture. Leaders must prioritize transparency and be willing to do whatever is needed to remedy situations causing poor morale. 

Decision-making under pressure

Leaders must often make hard decisions and can’t hesitate, even when the situation may be emotional or conflicted. Identify the issue, consider your options, solicit feedback, prioritize the response, and act accordingly. 

While input is often necessary, that doesn’t mean it should inform the final decision. However, knowing how a decision will affect others is critical, as anything less could be seen as self-serving or short-sighted. 

Dealing with conflict

Communication and active listening are the keys to conflict resolution. Preventing escalation is the first step. Effective leaders will maintain their composure even in high-pressure situations. Being able to control and regulate your emotions, remain objective, and focus on the matter at hand are essential. Applying empathy, emotional intelligence, and impartiality helps get to the heart of the matter. 

The underpinnings of great leaders

As we’ve already explored, leaders ensure their teams have clarity, ownership, and focus. To do that, there are four key things that great leaders put in motion to create extraordinary organizations:

1. Purpose provides focus for tasks along the path to a long-term destination. It also serves to help each employee see meaning in their own work because they understand its greater impact.

2. Culture is what ensures consistency in behaviour through shared values. It makes it a lot easier to align teams, make decisions, and work together. Len Jillard, Chief People Officer for McDonald’s Canada sets out clearly the impact of leaders on culture and values:

“I think culture is simply a reflection of leadership beliefs—their value system and then the behaviours that reflect that. You’re going to always behave the way you believe. You might be able to mask it for little while, but sooner or later your behaviours are going to reflect what you truly believe.”

3. Trust is a must for leaders to be able to communicate and inspire action. It’s very much impacted by both the integrity and the transparency of each leader. In offering up some practical tips on how to foster trust as a leader, Dr. Marla Gottschalk observes:

“We've all experienced a situation where trust is tested. A leadership decision that seemed to undermine the long-term health of relationships.” She goes on to observe, “workplace trust is easily bruised—yet not as easily repaired.”

4. Recognition and celebration are fuel. They help individuals and teams recognize that they’re accomplishing things and that their contributions matter. Recognition needs to be specific and happen in real time.

Final Thoughts

Today’s most influential leaders can’t be described in a single sentence or lumped together as one. And while leadership styles may vary based on the individual, the company, the project, or the ideology at stake, we can conclude that most great leaders have at least a few things in common. Their vision, confidence, self-awareness, and ability to communicate are their guiding principles, while their ability to motivate, inspire, and provide meaning to their teams and colleagues are, ultimately, what makes them great. 

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Brad Palmer

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