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Leadership and followership
Leadership and followership

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1.1 Defining leadership

How would you describe leadership? Before looking at some definitions, use Activity 1 to consider what leadership means to you.

Activity 1 What is a leader?

Timing: Allow about 10 minutes

Think about leaders you are aware of, either from the media or from your own experience. What do they do every day? What are they needed for? What type of people are they? In the box below, write a sentence or paragraph that aims to capture your view of what a leader is.

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You could have approached this in different ways. Did you focus on the personal skills and qualities required by a leader, or consider the process or tasks of leadership? These perspectives reflect the different ways that researchers have conceptualised leadership, as you’ll see later in the course.

This personal definition gives you a useful starting point from which you can develop your view as you go through the course. Revisit it at the end of the course to see if you would change or add anything.

In his book Leadership Theory and Practice, Professor Peter Northouse takes the central components from 65 different classifications of leadership, and distils them into the following definition:

Leadership is a process whereby an individual influences a group of individuals to achieve a common goal.

(Northouse, 2016, p. 6)

Yet, as leadership expert Ralph Stogdill once wrote:

There are almost as many different definitions of leadership as there are persons who have attempted to define the concept.

(Stogdill, 1974, p. 7)

Bret Bogenschneider (2016, pp. 15–16) presents an impressive list of definitions in his research to find a common framework to distinguish competing ideas about leadership. The list includes the following:

  • Leadership may be considered as the process (act) of influencing the activities of an organised group in its efforts toward goal setting and goal achievement (Stogdill, quoted in Bogenschneider, 2016).
  • Leadership is interpersonal influence, exercised in a situation and directed, through the communication process, toward the attainment of a specific goal or goals (Tannenbaum, Weschler and Massik, quoted in Bogenschneider, 2016).
  • Leadership occurs when persons engage with others in such a way that leaders and followers raise one another to higher levels of motivation and morality (Burns, quoted in Bogenschneider, 2016).
  • Leaders are those who consistently make effective contributions to social order, and who are expected and perceived to do so (Hosking, quoted in Bogenschneider, 2016).
  • Leadership is typically defined by the traits, qualities and behaviours of a leader (Horner, quoted in Bogenschneider, 2016).

There are clear parallels between many of these definitions, for example ‘influence’ is a common theme, but there are key differences in concept, with some authors describing leadership as a ‘process’ and others highlighting behaviours. Each writer’s subject specialism, which might be psychology, management or even statistics, will also have an influence, along with the prevailing attitudes from the era in which the term was defined.