A leader or a hermit?

A leader or a hermit?

There is no single precise definition of leadership, despite the fact that leadership is considered to be one of the most important attributes that any team, group or organization must have.  Myriad books, models and frameworks attempt to define it and tell you how to cultivate it. Theories of leadership tend to break into three camps: innate-attribute based, process and position based, and hybrid.

The innate attribute camp is breaks down further into either great man (i.e. leaders are born) or trait (i.e. specific traits lead to leadership) theories. In the innate attribute camp, even when traits can be developed, they are based on fundamentals that you either have or don’t have. In most cases these theories are somewhat archaic, for example the Great Man Theory was first popularized in the 1800s. These types of theories tend to resurface because they are easily discussed and consumed.

Process-based theories focus on honing behaviors and skills.   These theories tend to reflect that in different situations, leaders use different approaches.  The approaches are learned and improved, rather than representing intrinsic traits. Consider Winston Churchill – he was a great wartime leader, but as less successful during peacetime. Churchill was most powerful when motivating under stress with a particular pinch of oratory.  As situations changed Churchill continued to use the same actions and behaviors, which did not translate to success in a different circumstance.  Process-based theories predict that situations dictate different leadership behaviors.

Hybrid theories combine the best of both worlds.  An example of a hybrid model is the 1994 Transformational Theory described by Bass and Avolio. In this theory, leaders apply their attributes to specific situations to inspire individuals, develop trust and personal growth.  The concept of servant leadership, another hybrid leadership style, reflects a synthesis of a leader’s attributes and situational leadership requirements.

Picking a definition of leadership is important to ground how you will guide and coach teams. When coaching teams the model of leadership that I use is that a leader provides guidance, creates structure, sanctions methods of work and defines levels of performance to attain a goal. How he or she does that, or whether the mantle of leadership is situational depends on the organization and the team itself.  Both the traits of the leader and situation become important to understand who will be able to lead and when a leader should cede the mantle to another.  Regardless of the theory, leadership is about influencing a group of people to achieve a goal. Even if the leadership pundits can’t agree upon a precise definition, they will agree that a leader must have followers that will pursue the goal or visions the leader provides. In the end, a leader without followers is a hermit.