The theory of leadership is intriguing.  It's been studied for hundreds of years, with the hope of being able to teach others what it takes to become a better leader.

Leaders and Leadership

It's normal to admire leaders, and even envision oneself in this type of role.  The news publishes stories about leaders all of the time, talking about their exceptional results.  But what does it take to be a great leader?

Unfortunately, that's not such an easy question to answer.  It involves an understanding of the skills and characteristics needed to be successful, as well as how to correctly use these talents.  Great leaders also understand the importance of flexing their style to various work environments.

Natural Born Leaders

There is a saying that some leaders are born that way.  They're referred to as "natural born leaders."  We've discussed the nature versus nurture argument in an earlier publication.  The fact is that nature has more to do with instincts.  For example, even a newborn knows how to do certain things like nurse, or drink from a bottle, instinctively.

Undoubtedly, there are also some natural characteristics that young children exhibit, seemingly without any influence from others.  The classic example might be an introverted versus an extroverted child.  At a very early age, some children seem to gain energy from crowds (extroverts), while others like to look inward (introverts).  But leadership is quite a different story.

Leadership is a skill or trait that is observed and imitated.  Leadership needs to be learned from others that act as role models.  Small children appear to be leaders at times, but the skills they exhibit are usually related to persuasion.  For example, they may be good at bargaining with other children to persuade them to play a game they like to play themselves.

But this ability to persuade is usually a result of imitation.  A parent may have used the same persuasion tactics on a child, and they quickly learn how to apply these same techniques to those around them.  There are no natural born leaders.  They're created via the influence of others.


If individuals aren't born leaders, then the study of their characteristics should be an effective way to improve these skills.  This topic has been covered in detail in the article Leadership Characteristics, and a summary of that information appears below:

  • Interpersonal Skills:  leaders have above average interpersonal skills.  They are good at dealing with and relating to others.
  • Communication Skills:  whether it is captivating an audience or giving clear direction to others, communicating is an important leadership characteristic.
  • Values:  while leaders are driven to achieve results, they are usually motivated by their beliefs and values.
  • Confidence:  leaders are certain of their abilities, and are not afraid to ask for help in areas where they are weak.
  • Flexibility and Creativity:  involves thinking outside the box, and willing to operate outside the box, to get things done.
  • Results:  a cornerstone of these characteristics, a leader sets out to accomplish something, and they find ways to make sure they are done.

Leadership Styles

Now that the foundation for characteristics is understood, the next step is to bundle these to create distinct styles.  This is done by Daniel Goleman's theory and the leadership styles he describes.  Once again, this topic has been covered in detail in the article Leadership Styles, and a summary of that information appears below.

Goleman describes six different leadership styles that range from working with others to get things done, to a style exhibiting a lot of "old school" managerial techniques, which involves intimidating or coercing followers into getting things done.  It's critical to understand various styles because consistently successful leaders have used more than one in the past.

This is a very important point because it is desirable for a leader to flex a style to the situation at hand since the effectiveness of each style will vary with the operating environment.

Conditional Leadership

The application of a leadership style to a given set of circumstances is known as conditional leadership.  This is arguably the most important factor in determining the long term success of a leader.  The below is a common explanation when a leader fails.

A certain individual was very effective at one time, but suddenly seems to have lost their leadership abilities.  Many times this is attributed to burn out, or some other external factor that was beyond the leader's control.  They were put in a different situation, but were unable to achieve superior results.

This can happen when the leader fails to flex their style to the situation.  The leader might have been effective in a crisis because they used a coercive or a pacesetting style.  The work needed to be done quickly, and the surroundings were chaotic.  These styles work well in those types of environments.  But when things calmed down, and the followers gained experience and maturity, they are very ineffective, perhaps even counterproductive.

These fallen leaders failed to realize the style that worked in the past was no longer effective in the current work environment.  They failed to change as the circumstances changed, and they became ineffective leaders.

Effective Leadership

Leadership is more than skill or knowledge.  It is an awareness of the surroundings, the needs of the environment, and disposition of followers.  Effective leaders know the importance of moving with the times, and adjust their style to the current environment.  They are willing to admit they might have to change to continue being successful.

If an internal or an external leadership assessment indicates additional skills need to be developed, there are two ways to attack this problem.  Individuals can sign up for classroom training in leadership or volunteer for assignments that allow them to practice new skills.  Again, it's important to understand that not all leadership styles will be effective in all situations.

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