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What Is Leadership? The Essential Toolbox For Leaders

by Cheyenne Diaz January 11, 2018

Can you precisely define leadership? What is leadership?

If not, don’t worry – only few people can. Nonetheless, a clearer concept of leadership can greatly improve your success as a leader in all aspects of your life. This article will take a close look at how we can define leadership and how clear definition can help you become a better leader.

The Problem: There Is No Clear Definition Of Leadership

Everybody talks about leadership – but no two people would agree on a definition. defined 11 definitions of leadership, listed 100 answers.

This ambiguity is a problem.

Most new leaders start their leadership experience without a clear picture of what it means to be a leader, especially a good leader. Pop culture installed in them many conflicting ideas of leadership that only confuse them. They are unable to use the right type of leadership for the right situation and keep making bad leadership decisions.

This article will turn these confusing ideas into clear pictures. Different leadership styles will becomes tools that you can use to better adjust to the challenges of leadership and face each task with the tools that are individually right for it.

Let’s start our journey by clearly defining different leadership styles.

The Solution: The 4 Basic Leadership Styles

leadership skills

Leadership theory distinguishes between 4 leadership types. They are:

1. Autocratic or authoritarian leadership. This type of leader centralizes all power and decision making in their person. There are no explanations or suggestions, they make every decision on their own. In most situations, this autocratic leadership is outdated. Its usefulness is mostly limited to crisis situations when tough decisions have to be made in a short time.

2. Participative or democratic leadership. Democratic leaders allow their group members to participate in the decision making process. This leadership style puts a stronger emphasis on the goals of the group members, which is why it is better suited for most challenges than autocratic leadership.

3. Laissez-faire or Free-rein leadership. Laissez-faire leaders take the idea of democratic leadership one step further. Group members can set their own agendas, make their own decisions, and deal with problems in the way they consider best. More and more companies have recently introduced an aspect of laissez-faire leadership, for example by allocating time for employees to follow their own projects.

4. Task-oriented and relationship-oriented leadership. Task oriented leadership focuses on achieving specific goals while meeting deadlines. It is outcome-focused and neglects the relationships in the group. Relationship oriented leadership, on the other hand, focuses on aiding the relationships within the group and the wellbeing of each member.

Effective leaders combine aspects of both styles, but modern leaders have placed a stronger emphasis on relationships, showing trust, appreciation, and confidence in group members. In the long-term, these practices often create better results than purely task-oriented leadership.

The Application: What Makes An Effective Leader?

effective leadership

If you are a leader, you want to be effective, right? This is where things get tricky. Leadership styles are easy to categorize, but measuring effective leadership is more difficult.

We intuitively assume that effective leaders are those who can best fulfill a set of criteria and goals. This definition naturally lends itself to an autocratic, task-based leadership. Allowing employees to follow their own goals and putting relationships ahead of deadlines can only be counter-productive.

The problem with this approach to leadership is that it focuses on the short term. Leaders who solely focus on effectiveness often make bad leadership decisions that hurt them in the long run. Think of effectiveness as a short-term focus while good leadership also focuses on the long term.

This is not to say that it is always better to solely focus on long-term effectiveness, but if you keep neglecting your group members’ wishes and individual goals to meet short-time benchmarks, you will run into problems.

No leadership style is by definition always right.

Regardless of which type of group you want to lead, there will be times at which an authoritarian leadership style is better than a democratic leadership style, and there will be times at which it is worse.

Authoritarian leadership works well during times of crisis. If you have to make layoffs, an autocratic leadership style is without alternative – no employee will decide to let themselves go. But when you want to get most out of every group member, encourage loyalty, and maximize the overall result, a democratic leadership is almost always the better choice.

Autocratic leadership can also work well to first define a groups goals, values, and principles.

When Steve Jobs started Apple to create more beautiful, more intuitive technology, he made an autocratic decision. Over time, this authoritarian leadership is impossible to maintain on all levels. As your group grows and evolves, it makes sense to grant more autonomy to each member and transition to a more democratic or laissez-faire leadership style. These styles help you avoid micro management, bring the best out of your people, and keep group motivation high.

What makes a great leader is the ability to understand the different styles of leadership and mix them in the right way to aid their own goals, but also the goals of their groups and each member. Effective leaders think that they have power over people, good leaders know that they have power with people.

The Key Strengths Of A Leader

leadership tactics

The requirements for great leaders sound are a tall order. This is why great leaders are so rare. Luckily, there are a few personality traits that help everyone become at least a good leader. They are:

  • Leaders understand their field. To be a leader, you must convince your group members of your ability to get them where they want to go. Understand your field and have the skill to succeed. Acquiring the skill that inspires confidence is the most difficult, important, and time-consuming step towards becoming a leader.
  • Leaders understand their group. Leadership is neither about doing everything yourself nor about delegating everything. It is about understanding your group members – including their personalities and private situations – to assign tasks to those members who can do them well enough, at least.
  • Leaders have an intrinsic motivation. Your group members need to believe in you. Therefore, you need a compass that guides all of your decisions and instills the confidence that your group can rely on you for decades to come. This compass is an intrinsic motivation. Leaders without an intrinsic motivation often seem dishonest and unpredictable, which kills loyalty and group support.
  • Leaders understand their goals. A leader that is brought in to let people go is not there to make friends – at least not in the short term. The leader should use an autocratic leadership style, even if some people dislike it. Once the firm is back on solid ground, the leader can change its style. Good leaders understand their goals and what it takes to fulfill them.
  • Leaders have charisma. Charisma is a doubled-edged sword. It can inspire great loyalty but also creates great disappointment when you encounter problems. Nonetheless, most leaders need at least some charisma to convince their group of their ability to lead. You can create enough charisma by being honest, interested in your group members, and open about your goals and feelings.

This is a down-to-earth approach to leadership. Sure, if you want to be the best leader in history, these five strengths are insufficient. But if you want to be a goodleader, they are enough. Try to be good first.

Do I Need All Of These Top Leadership Strengths?

If you possess all of the leadership strengths that we listed, you would be the next Elon Musk or Henry Ford. That would be great thing – but there is no need to be that perfect. There might be one perfect leader in every decade, but many companies, countries, and groups do well with leaders that possess only some of these strengths.

Good leaders understand their limitations.

When leaders put the perfection of their own leadership ahead of the goals of the group and its members, they act egoistical. The members of their groups feel that their leaders use them as tools to proof their own abilities, rebel and perform worse.

Leadership is only one of many aspects that influences the success of a group. Every group has self-managing and self-correcting qualities, and as long as the leader can keep the group on track well enough for the members to feel confident that they can achieve their goals, it is unimportant whether the leader is perfect.

Focus on becoming a good enough leader, and relax. The rest will take care of itself. There is nothing worse than a self-obsessed leader.

So What Is Leadership After All?

As you can see, leadership is a complex issue. It is difficult to define what leadership means, and often the ability to be able to step back and let your people unfold their qualities is the best form of leadership. At the same time, there are fundamental issues on which leaders must provide a reliable compass.

Leadership, in this sense, is the mental clarity to understand the different styles of leadership as your tools and the ability to constructively use and combine them.

You now know all the important tools of a good leader. Use them wisely.

Where will you lead your team? Share with us in the comment section below!

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