Leadership is a process by which a person influences others to accomplish an objective and directs the organisation in a way that makes it more cohesive and coherent.

There is no single definition that satisfies everyone. John Adair says ‘leadership, like all personal relations, always has something unknown, something mysterious about it’. However, there is a clue in that comment – the phrase ‘personal relations’. To attempt a partial definition, leadership is very much about the ability to influence people by personal attributes and behaviours.

However, most people would say that even successful leaders they have known do not behave in identical ways. They may, in fact, act very differently even in similar situations and they may have quite different personalities. Moreover, different leadership qualities may be needed in different circumstances. The classic example is perhaps Churchill, who was a great war leader but less successful in peacetime. Similarly, CEOs who excel in turning around ailing companies may perform less well when things are on a more even keel. All this may lead to the conclusion that there is no single template of leadership behaviours, which in turn poses the question of whether leaders can be developed: what are the qualities (or competencies) of leadership, and how can they be brought out?

The road to great leadership (Kouzes & Posner, 1987) that is common to successful leaders:

  • Challenge the process: First, find a process that you believe needs to be improved the most
  • Inspire a shared vision: Next, share you vision in words that can be understood by your followers
  • Enable others to act: Give them the tools and methods to solve the problem
  • Model the way: When the process gets tough, get your hands dirty. A boss tells others what to do…a leader shows that it can be done
  • Encourage the heart: Share the glory with your followers’ heart, while keeping the pains within your own

According to CIPD, before people can become successful leaders, they do need certain attributes:

  • General intelligence, although not necessarily being very much brighter than the people they are leading
  • Technical or professional knowledge and competence in their particular fields – how otherwise would leaders be respected?
  • Personality: leaders should be energetic and committed, maintain contact with their people, and understand their strengths and weaknesses
  • The ability to inspire, although this quality may be rarer than some of the others and is perhaps the most difficult to develop
  • Listening, sharing and delegating skills (and not interfering unnecessarily), because in groups of more than around five people it becomes impossible to know all the necessary detail
  • Self-knowledge, to understand their own strengths and weaknesses, which in turn will enable them to turn to others in their group to compensate for their own biases or deficiencies

All these attributes will help to develop trust, without which leaders will not command loyalty. The last four, ‘softer’, non-technical attributes might be summed up as ‘emotional intelligence’.