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Why is leadership important?

With the business leaders of many top companies becoming names in their own right, the focus on leadership and leadership skills has never been more acute. Although it may appear that some people are naturally great leaders, honing your leadership skills is an ongoing process. Effective leadership requires not only that you lead in a way that is inspiring and motivating but that your management skills are up to date. Is leadership a skill? It would certainly seem to be more of a skill than a characteristic trait, and one that some of the greatest leaders have to consistently work on with leadership development. Competencies that strong leaders tend to focus and build upon include, decision-making, problem-solving, and communication skills.

There are many types of leadership including transformational, transactional, autocratic, and democratic leadership. Different situations may require a different style, but strong leadership tends to exhibit a particular style and consistently. 

The global pandemic has tested the skills of many leaders, demanding knowledge of a mixture of approaches and quick thinking. The current challenges that businesses of all sizes face are changing the definition of leadership for the near and distant future.

Who is Warren Bennis?

Warren Bennis is often hailed as a pioneer of leadership studies, whose thinking still has a strong influence on our understanding of what makes a good leader. He identified 13 characteristics that he believed set good leaders apart from mere managers. 

The 13 traits of true leadership versus regular management are:

  • Administration versus innovation
  • Carbon copy versus original
  • Maintenance versus development
  • System or structure focus versus people focus
  • Control versus inspiration
  • Acceptance versus investigation
  • Short-range versus long-range perspective
  • Interest in “how” and “when” versus interest in “what” and “why”
  • View toward bottom line versus view toward horizon
  • Imitation versus origination
  • Acceptance versus challenge of/to status quo
  • Conformity versus individuality
  • Desire to do things right versus ability to do the right things

Along with Burt Nanus, Bennis also identified the qualities of transformational leadership as:

  • Having a clear vision for the future
  • Being a “social architect” by communicating the direction the organisation needs to go in
  • Forming trust through consistency and clarity
  • Demonstrating positive self-regard by focusing on what they’re good at

What is transformational leadership?

Transformational leadership remains the dominant form of leadership style since the phrase was first coined by James V. Downton in 1973. Transformational leaders are often charismatic, showing an interest in team members and their wellbeing, while inspiring them. They are usually individuals with a high level of emotional intelligence that are always looking for ways to better themselves as well as those around them through their actions and responses. They don’t tend to get involved in the minutiae of project management but give their leadership teams the freedom and responsibility to manage their teams accordingly. This very much fits into current thinking on what is considered great leadership, so is a highly desirable asset for organisations looking to attract talent.

Steve Jobs is often thought of as a charismatic visionary and inspirational leader and yet there are also accounts of his leadership style being manipulative and involving the humiliation of employees – more in line with an autocratic leader. Despite this, he was meticulous in designing the Pixar offices to encourage interaction and cross-pollination of ideas. He notoriously insisted on locating the only toilets for the entire company in the central atrium area of the building so that employees had to take a walk quite a way from their desks and bump into other employees en route. He was actually persuaded to install a second set of toilets by CTO Edwin Catmull.

What is transactional leadership?

Transactional leaders focus on a joint purpose upon which all team members can aim for and achieve. It’s transactional because there are rewards for hitting targets and punishments or intervention when targets are not achieved. Transactional leaders take a laissez-faire approach to employees, and don’t prioritise getting to know individuals or understanding any challenges they may be facing personally or professionally. 

This impersonal method of leadership can feel cold because it is goal-oriented but it often follows Maslow’s Theory of Hierarchical Needs in order to create a sense of strong satisfaction in employees when they do reach team goals successfully.

Bill Gates was seen as a transactional leader in his early years before being considered a transformational leader. This mirrors his career development from starting one of the most competitive computer companies in the world to becoming a philanthropist with his joint venture, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. While at Microsoft he was strict on chain of command and laser-focused on the completion of tasks in his leadership role. For this reason, transactional leaders tend to be excellent at hitting short-term goals but not so strong on communicating long-term vision.

What is autocratic leadership?

Autocratic leadership feels like the least relevant type of leadership for today as it can be perceived as dictator-like and authoritarian. Yet, in some situations it can be useful depending on various factors like time constraints when decisions have to be made quickly.

Autocratic leaders follow rules and prefer highly structured, rigid environments which follow processes. Their style doesn’t tend to cultivate creativity, allow team members to make their own decisions, or exercise initiative. Leadership teams are lent upon for everyday decision making (which usually doesn’t involve input from stakeholders) as well as the day-to-day management of the business. The style feels very old-fashioned for today’s workplace and yet unfortunately, it does still occur in less forward-thinking organisations.

What is thought leadership?

Thought leadership is not a style of leadership but a method of demonstrating and sharing knowledge and expertise in leadership. This can be through blogs and white papers or through social media like Twitter and LinkedIn. 

Strong leaders tend to have strong opinions on current affairs – this can be powerful in finding an organisation’s target audience but also polarising if not everyone agrees with a leader’s thoughts. Elon Musk is the perfect example of a leader who speaks his mind – which may have shareholders worrying what he decides to say next, but also attracts brand advocates who identify with his thinking. When a company has a strong purpose or values, such as Patagonia (led by Yvon Chouinard), it creates a robust case study for speaking out on issues such as sustainability and diversity.

What makes a great leader?

There are many misconceptions about what makes a great leader and what is excellent leadership potential. There’s no standard job description for the ideal leader because a successful leader can exhibit different traits and skills based on their own experiences. What can be said is that great leaders are aware of their flaws as well as their gifts, and always willing to learn.

With the University of Lincoln’s MSc Management, you could have the opportunity to challenge and explore your own strengths as a leader, while enriching your understanding of current best practice in management.