by Andrea Charman

What is leadership?

Here is one well-known and well-supported definition that can serve as an anchor for further discovery.

Leadership is...

an art and a science. It involves change and stability; it draws on personal attributes and requires interpersonal relations; it sets visions and results in actions; it honours the past and exists for the future; it manages things and leads people; it is transformational and transactional; it serves employees and customers; it requires learning and the learning of others; it centres on value and is seen in behaviours.

Dave Ulrich, Credibility x Capability, Jossey-Bass, 1996

It can be helpful to begin to clarify thinking by stating what most ‘experts’ in the field consider to have more to do with management than leadership. (This is not to say that many leaders do not demonstrate capabilities in these areas.)

What leadership is not

Leadership is not about

  • Process
  • Procedure
  • Policies
  • Systems
  • Targets
  • Tasks
  • Budgets
  • Maintenance
  • Compliance.

So, what is it?

Leadership is much more about vision and the future, about people skills and the capacity to engage people to commit their energies and motivation to follow; it is about expectations and aspirations.

Effective leadership involves helping people make sense of who they are and how what they do fits into the larger scheme of things; it’s about motivation, impact, influence and buy-in. Leadership involves winning hearts and minds, reaching people at an emotional level that is often beyond logical, linear argument. As a result, some aspects of leadership can perhaps be seen as timeless, since they are constant challenges that surface, regardless of context. Timeless challenges include

  • Modelling the vision, mission and values
  • Getting the right people in the right roles
  • Providing opportunities to develop
  • Scanning the environment and clearing obstacles
  • Instilling trust and belief
  • Reinforcing the strategy.

Topical challenges, however, are context specific. The responses that individual leaders make will differ because they are driven by the key factors that surround a given set of circumstances, plus individual leader ‘person factors’. These involve such things as instinct to action, appetite for risk, cognitive capacity, experience, EQ (emotional quotient or emotional intelligence), motivation profile and personality, to name just a few.

Leadership is often seen as both an activity (influence, co-ordination, action) and an attribute (a characteristic attributed to those who employ influence successfully). This dichotomy is challenging, but can be resolved by the thinking of Yale University’s Professor of Management, Arthur Jago, who defines leadership as ‘both a process and a property’.

Senior and middle leadership

Senior leaders embody the vision and provide the ‘public persona’ of the organisation. Their strategic role is to set the tone, model the way, inspire and engage...

Middle leaders are the critical link between the top and the frontline. With a far more operational role – albeit without loss of strategic perspective – they need to influence upwards while taking responsibility for the detail of performance. Middle leaders are critical in keeping senior leaders informed of ‘messages and themes from the frontline’, while embedding initiatives that come from the top. In sum, they need to look two ways. And that is not all! They also need to develop peripheral vision – building coalitions horizontally so that vertical silos are avoided.

Most organisations, and this is particularly true of those in the United Kingdom, face their main challenge in the middle level of leadership. The hierarchical traditions and culture make it hard for those in middle management to challenge those at the top, even in a supportive way. Particularly when people don’t know how to challenge correctly and appropriately, they risk being seen as upstarts.

Another challenge, discussed later in more detail (see Leadership versus management), is that the current emphasis on developing management abilities can lead either to a stifling of those in middle management with leadership potential, or to a state of affairs where management skills and abilities are developed while leadership coaching is neglected (or indeed both).

Leadership today

In the past, leadership was chiefly a matter of being at the top of a command-and-control hierarchy. The requisite people skills were of the patriarchal variety, and it was part of the leader’s task to establish a sense of order and stability. In today’s world, a much wider range of skills is involved. These include

  • A highly-developed emotional intelligence
  • The ability to build a followership and get the very best out of those people
  • The skill to switch leadership styles, choosing the appropriate style for the occasion.


Arguably, of course, there are constants in the challenge of effective leadership – at least at the top. First come the timeless challenges of creating and communicating a vision. To this end, the leader must be able to anchor the mission or the steps to achieving the vision in a clear and well-communicated set of agreed values that inform behavioural and attitudinal norms.

The effective leader also knows how to achieve a collective belief that the vision is both attainable and worthwhile, and that there are systems and processes in place to facilitate the journey so that obstacles along the way will be manageable. Leaders are also tasked with ensuring that the ‘right people are on the bus’ and that these will develop and advance their own capacities along the way. These, then, are the constants.


There are always, however, going to be topical challenges at any given time, dictated by the specifics of time, place and circumstance. This is where style and approach become critical. Effective leadership must include strategy selection (from authoritarian to laissez-faire), risk management and people choices. Here, the context and your response will count.

In the final analysis, those around you will mostly experience your leadership ‘in the moment’. People will either offer or withhold support and trust accordingly. More often than not, their response will be triggered by emotion rather than logic. Your ability to have thought things through and to manage yourself consistently and authentically at all times will count. Whatever happens, you need to remain authentic – you are who you say you are. If you say/show you will be tough, because that’s what’s needed at this particular time, then that is what you will be. You may not need to establish trust, but if the organisation is out of control, the authoritarian type may be what is required at that moment. Your people should know where they stand with you.

In the West we tend to think of leadership as a quality that exists in certain people. This usual way of thinking has many traps. We search for special people with leadership potential, rather than developing the leadership potential in everyone. Through all of this, we totally miss the bigger question: ‘What are we, collectively, able to create?’

Peter Senge

Senge’s quote above takes us into the area of team. Perhaps we should add this dimension to the topical challenge that leadership has always presented. Our current contexts invariably involve multiple stakeholders. This means that team effectiveness is critical.

Leadership and change

In the industrial economy, management was the focus because of the hierarchical structures of a command-and-control mechanistic organisational model, based on military thinking. Each contributor had a place in the structure (a reflection of the social structure), and that place was clearly defined. Cause and effect ruled in this logical linear world.

The internet and the interconnectedness of today’s world, including the global context and the ‘networks’, have challenged traditional leadership models, allowing all of us (at least notionally) to access information and have a voice. With information, data and knowledge now readily available to all who seek it, successful leaders can no longer be characterised simply by what they know. The use of information as power has become something of a threadbare strategy, with the result that successful leaders are more characterised by an ability to establish an enabling culture within which people can achieve their true potential.

Achieving a senior position will no longer give leadership recognition. Expectations have changed along with the opening up of choice. We have moved into a world in which effective leadership has increasingly become what it intrinsically always has been: a profoundly non-hierarchical concept.

Globalisation, furthermore, has resulted in diversity in its wider sense. Successful leaders are now challenged with creating inclusive work environments that maximise both individual and collective contributions. It has become increasingly critical to understand diverse cultural perceptions of leadership excellence and translate this into the ability to build a trust that will result in effective working relationships in a diverse workplace.

Key point

Today’s leadership skills are people rather than process skills. The game has changed and, along with this, the attributes and qualities required for success.

It could be argued that leadership has become a form of influence that involves the ability to initiate creative interactions between people that result in the achievement of well-defined and shared objectives, collective effectiveness and individual enrichment.

So what is the overarching result of all this? Metaphorical climate change, where constant yet discontinuous change is the rule; where multiple stakeholders who need to be consulted are common; an environment where everything is so complex and so fast-moving that no individual can succeed alone. The ability to engage others and build relationships, partnerships and communities of interest, therefore, is critical.