Leadership: Where Everything Rises and Falls

Every organization involves a complex dynamism of human activity, and every new individual added increases the complexity. How can an organization ensure that all that activity happens synergistically, make sure people aren’t working at cross-purposes, resolve disputes, bring people together to work toward a common purpose, and achieve alignment across stakeholders with a common set of values and goals? The answer to all these questions is leadership.

In this article, we’re going to take a thorough look at leadership. It’s an elusive concept that makes all the difference between companies that succeed and those that fail.

First, we’ll define leadership. Then we’ll look at the different leadership styles and the ways they apply to management. From there, we’ll discuss how to develop leadership. Let’s not waste any time!


Table of Contents:

  1. Leadership Definition
  2. What Is Leadership?
  3. What Is Leadership vs. Management
  4. Leadership Styles & Examples
  5. Leadership Skills
  6. Emotional Intelligence for Leaders
  7. Leadership Development
  8. Women in Leadership
  9. Common Leadership Questions
  10. Top Leadership Books

Leadership Definition

Leadership is often an abstract concept that we sort of assume we understand, but never examine or fully articulate. It seems too obvious to ever look up in the dictionary. Yet, people pay hundreds and thousands of dollars in pursuit of education on how leadership works and how it can be cultivated.

So before we move forward, let’s begin with a leadership definition. However, the dictionary isn’t much help here. Merriam-Webster’s various definitions include “the office or position of a leader,” “capacity to lead,” and “the act or an instance of leading.” But that doesn’t fully capture what we’re trying to talk about.

What Is Leadership?

If the dictionary definition of leadership fails to move us, then what is leadership? As the head of a department in a Fortune 500 company, you might have 50 people who report to you. Everyone in your department needs to understand their role, and you must work within a budget and timeline to achieve critical business objectives. To do this, as a manager, you’ll need to plan, measure, monitor, coordinate, and problem-solve. You may need to design compensation plans, hire people, and fire people.

But at the end of the day, managers manage things and leaders lead people. Your performance as a manager would be likely to improve with the addition of excellent leadership skills. But you may be a fine manager without a well-defined leadership style. As we’ll explore, leadership is not management (and vice versa).

So, how can we define leadership in a way that serves us in the context of management, business, and public life? The above referenced article suggests leadership is a “process of social influence, which maximizes the efforts of others, towards the achievement of a goal.” It goes through a variety of examples of what leadership is not (beyond it not being management!) including:

  • Leadership is not about seniority or one’s position in a hierarchy of a company.
  • It has nothing to do with titles.
  • It isn’t all, or even primarily, about personal attributes. Highly charismatic people can practice highly effective leadership. Or they might not. There are many different leadership styles and many personalities that can exhibit leadership skills.

For our purposes, when we talk about leadership, we will mean the act or quality of influencing others’ behaviors and/or opinions, and uniting them under a common set of goals and/or values. The focus of this article will lean towards leadership in a business context, but all areas of life – politics, family life, religion, and more – depend on effective leadership.

What Is Leadership vs. Management

Many people use the words leadership and management interchangeably. But while the two ideas do have something in common, there are important differences that need to be understood in the leadership vs. management conversation.

The clearest difference is formality versus informality. Management refers to strictly delineated roles within an organization. These roles contain certain functions and powers that require management to exercise certain controls over other people, systems, and procedures.

Indeed, compared to the concrete role of management, leadership remains a relatively abstract phenomenon. When you elicit a behavioral change in another person through leadership as opposed to management, you aren’t deriving your authority through power or seniority but through influence, trustworthiness, and the power of example.

This is why leaders have the ability to influence others more deeply than mere managers do. Leaders can touch people in their hearts and their minds. This kind of influence can make a deeply powerful impact on the operation of a company.

Again, there is not a mutually exclusive relationship between leadership and management. It’s possible to be both a leader and a manager. It’s also possible to be one without being the other.

Leadership Styles & Examples

If you ever played competitive sports, you may have noticed two types of teammates displaying two different leadership styles. The first style is the person who gets fired up during the timeout, and even though he/she may not be having a great game, would shout and cheer and try to get the rest of the team motivated. Sometimes, this would inspire the team to put forth more effort.

The second leadership style is the player who would rarely, if ever speak. But he/she would listen to the coach and follow the plan with maximum effort, thereby inspiring the rest of the team to do the same. The first person was practicing a form of “charismatic” leadership. The second is practicing “authentic” or “compassionate” leadership,” where the leading is done by setting an example.

Of course, there’s no single tried-and-true method for influencing others, especially since leadership is dependent so much on context and the perceived trustworthiness of the leader. But there are certain patterns exhibited by different leaders that can be grouped under different leadership styles.

Servant Leadership

At the core of leadership is the effort to unite people under shared objectives. Of course, incentivizing people to identify a shared objective involves showing them how they’ll be helped by – not just helpful to – the common goal. Any leader will instinctively work to put people in positions where they can do the greatest good. However, we still typically imagine workers serving leadership (or at least management).

Servant leadership inverts this pattern and involves a leader prioritizing serving whatever their employees need to perform as well as possible.

Transformational Leadership

In certain contexts, teams reach an impasse that prevents them from making progress toward their goal. They appear helpless to transcend or even identify the impasse. Systems accumulate momentum over time, and transformation can be extremely hard. In these contexts, transformational leadership becomes appropriate.

Transformational leadership is a form of leadership in which the leader helps a team to identify where change is needed & how to achieve that change. They may guide the team to stop even trying to solve this problem, and completely reorient around a different problem. The transformational leader will also, ideally, see the team through the completion of the needed change.

Autocratic Leadership

Continuing the breakdown of different leadership styles brings us to autocratic leadership, alternatively called authoritarian leadership. This leadership style is most well known in a political science context. But as all too many employees know, this leadership style has migrated into the business world as well.

Autocratic leaders retain control over virtually every decision – or at least every decision in which the leader is interested. Other members of the group or team have limited to no authority, agency, or input into decisions.

Democratic Leadership

Democratic leadership refers to power dynamics where decision-making that affects the group is made with input from many or all group members. Members are encouraged to make their opinions known in a way that influences the decision the leader makes. In democratic leadership, there is still some kind of leadership at play, and in most cases, an individual still has to ultimately make a decision.

Compassionate Leadership

Compassionate leadership stems from a position of compassion, sympathy, and human kindness. These fundamental perspectives inform the way a leader relates to the group as a collective and as individuals. Compassionate leaders consider the wellbeing of their team members and other associated stakeholders.

Situational Leadership

Situational leadership is an umbrella term for a flexible approach to leadership that accounts for the unique variables of any context. Rather than relying on a specific script for how to lead in every situation, the situational leader takes account of the exact situation they and their followers find themselves in.

This includes each follower’s unique relationship to what is needed from them. It accomplishes nothing to simply expect your followers to conform to a norm that may not meet them where they’re at. The situational leader meets their followers where they are, and helps the group get where they want to be.

Transactional Leadership

In some situations, leadership involves a more deliberate game of figuring out how to incentivize others to act in the way you want. These situations involve transactional leadership.

Transactional leadership involves using negotiations, exchanges, and rewards in order to influence others in a certain way. For example, if you offer your sales team a bonus for meeting a certain sales quota, you’re engaging in transactional leadership.

Laissez Faire Leadership

Laissez faire leadership, which you can also describe as a “hands-off” approach to leadership, refers to a leadership style that you might find counterintuitive. As a means of encouraging certain types of behavior and helping a team meet a goal, you do very little.

Team members are allowed a certain degree of freedom for self-determination. Employees may be given general guidance, but they are mostly allowed to self-govern in whatever way they understand to best serve their own efforts. Many employees genuinely thrive with minimal supervision. Some people can only achieve their best according to their own conditions. Laissez faire leadership allows people to determine for themselves what enables them to be the best possible worker and person. This leadership style is far more effective when high level objectives and expectations are clear and aligned.

Organizational Leadership

A lot of the most notable and powerful acts of human leadership occur on a relatively small scale. An individual influences a single other person, or perhaps a few people. Of course, for better and worse, other people exert influence on a much larger scale through the organizations they lead. Organizational leadership is a form of leadership where someone works to set the objectives and values for an entire organization, helping to chart that organization’s course forward. For example, establishing a clear and motivating mission statement is a clear element of organizational leadership.

Authentic Leadership

Some of the other leadership styles in this list refer to different leadership contexts, situations, or dynamics. Authentic leadership really refers to a leadership style. In fact, authentic leadership encompasses some of the core forms of human influence that make up the phenomenon of leadership.

Think about it: what qualities convince you to let yourself be led by someone? You probably need to identify with that person on some level, and to trust them. Authenticity is one of the most surefire ways of building trust with people you may not know very well. Authenticity involves showing a genuine version of yourself.

Embodying these qualities can help the people around you feel like they know and can trust you. This makes them much likelier to accept or identify with you as a leader.

Charismatic Leadership

Charismatic leadership, first studied by historian and sociologist Max Weber, refers to a leader who draws on their charisma in order to influence other people. Charisma is a mysterious quality, made largely of communication skills, rhetorical style, and charm. People with an abundance of charisma can influence others on an emotional level. Of course, this is what makes charismatic leaders effective and also dangerous. Many of the most charismatic business leaders have inspired their employees to exceed what may have seemed possible.

Leadership Skills

As the list of different leadership styles makes clear, there is no single right way to practice positive leadership. Nor is there a single leadership skill that you can acquire and immediately become a good leader. However, there are many leadership skills that many successful leaders have in common.

For instance, many leaders have excellent listening and communications skills, combined with high emotional intelligence and empathy. This helps them to assess the feelings, needs, and desires of all relevant stakeholders for any project quickly and thoroughly. Good leaders also have good analytical skills. And of course, good leaders have self-awareness to maintain composure in stressful situations.

If you want to read more about leadership skills, be sure to see our article on the subject.

Emotional Intelligence for Leaders

For far too long, the field of management has focused on the quantifiable dimension of leadership and neglected emotional intelligence. But more people are starting to appreciate the value of emotional intelligence for leaders. While the sciences of business and economics have sometimes minimized the human dimension of business, business is really nothing more than exchanges and relations between humans. And humans are, for better and worse, emotional beings.

A leader with a high emotional intelligence can intuit things about their team/organization, customers, neighbors, and other stakeholders. Often, no amount of formal analysis could reveal these things. The effects on morale can be profound. An emotionally intelligent leader accounts for the emotional dimension of the entire team. This can make the difference between a team that trips over its own feet and a team that exceeds expectations.

If you want to read more about how emotional intelligence relates to leadership, be sure to check out our article on emotional intelligence in business.

Leadership Development

Leadership is not a personality trait you are born with – it can be developed. You can build leadership skills through practice and by taking leadership development classes, workshops, etc.

The business world has recently seen a huge surge in leadership development products, from self-help books to intensive multi-week retreats. Many things are driving this $14 billion industry, including a common compensation structure that rewards management more than the rest of the hierarchy.

Unfortunately, the science of leadership development is far from perfect. Many people complain about a dissatisfying return on investment when it comes to leadership development products and content. In short: leadership development is most effective when it focuses on one specific dimension or component of leadership, rather than the concept at large. You can read more about the subject here.

Women in Leadership

Recent decades have seen remarkable advances for women in leadership and toward gender equity in leadership. And yet, the continued lack of gender parity in positions of power is far from good enough.

We must acknowledge not only the injustice but the collective loss from women’s exclusion from leadership positions. For example, research suggests that women tend to perform better as leaders in times of crisis. During the COVID-19 pandemic, this research showed that female leaders achieved much higher levels of engagement in those that reported to them during a highly stressful and uncertain time.

Women in leadership help organizations perform better. Thankfully, there are many resources available designed to help women step into leadership positions. Here are some examples:

Barriers for Non-Western Female Leaders

Research has demonstrated that as countries modernize, they tend to move toward greater gender equality in leadership positions. However, in much of the non-western and developing world, women continue to be excluded from leadership in business, politics, and even collective social life. That fails to capture the full story in many places, where women are even excluded from working, obtaining an education, or even being self-determining public citizens.

What attitudes towards women as leaders are at play in hindering their empowerment? Examples include substantial differences in attitudes in post-Communist and developing societies, cultural norms, and religious prohibitions or implied prohibitions. The advancement of women’s leadership across the globe will depend on a global effort to advance gender parity and recognize the benefits of women in leadership.

Common Leadership Questions

Let’s take a look at some of the most common leadership questions.

What are the qualities of a good leader?

One of the oldest and most common leadership questions is quite simple. What are the qualities of a good leader? The list is not short. All else equal, an individual with high character, intelligence, work ethic, creativity, and empathy is likely to be a good leader. It is also important to be able to delegate, to be self-aware, to act with integrity, and to demonstrate “learning agility.” Of course, communication skills are also a key quality in good leaders.

What are the three most important roles of a leader?

Leaders wear many different hats and have to adapt to radically different roles depending on what the context requires. But there are some roles leaders have to get used to performing over and over again.

The first is the role of the Decider. The leader must ultimately decide what the organization does and be accountable for making that decision.

The second is the role of Inspirer. The leader is responsible for ensuring organizational unity and motivation.

The third is the role of Communicator. The leader is a kind of intersection or nexus through which all an organization’s vectors of communication flow. The leader’s job can be impacted by the information – which can be operational, legal, political, or emotional – flowing through every relevant stakeholder.

What skills make a good leader?

As leaders come in many shapes & sizes, they also have many different kinds of skills. Some excellent leaders are extremely quantitatively-minded. Others are functionally innumerate, but have strong emotional intelligence. Still others are great communicators.

What are bad leadership qualities?

It’s also helpful to identify qualities that make for bad leadership. The opposite of many of the above qualities is one way to think about bad leadership qualities. Any leader who is dishonest instead of honest, self-centered instead of self-aware, or rigid in their thinking instead of creative, exhibits less than desirable leadership qualities.

A bad leader also diminishes, obstructs, or competes with teammates. A bad leader also fails to account for the specificity of an individual or a situation. A person more focused on receiving individual accolades vs. seeing the organization achieve an objective is also unlikely to be a good leader.

What is Thought Leadership?

Thought leadership refers to influential and/or pioneering thinking. Thought leaders are recognized as an authority in their field or on specific topics. Thought leadership is often paired with terms such as “original, creative, or ground-breaking.” A leader who is considered a thought leader generally has significant influence and authority and is likely to be far more successful than one who does not.

Top Leadership Books

People have been writing leadership books for generations. One of the most recognized books on leadership was written by Dale Carnegie and is called “How to Win Friends and Influence People.” Leadership, at its core, is about influencing others and this book teaches one how to do that.

We’ll look at a few other top leadership books below.


It’s safe to say we know a lot more about what makes good leadership now than we did a generation or two ago. And the continued focus on the quality of leadership reveals just how impactful leadership can be. As anyone who has ever tried to run a business will tell you, no business is simply the sum of its parts. But whether that business is worth more or less than that sum has a lot to do with the quality of its leadership.

We hope this article has given you a thorough understanding of what leadership is, leadership styles and examples, and how to develop leadership. If your organization needs help developing leaders or managers, reach out today to find out what we offer in those areas of corporate training!


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Filed Under: Consulting skills, Corporate Training, Leadership, Leadership & Management