Step up to leadership
Step up to leadership

Start this free course now. Just create an account and sign in. Enrol and complete the course for a free statement of participation or digital badge if available.

Free course

Step up to leadership

1 What is leadership?

There are many ways of understanding leadership and what it means to be a leader – as already noted, there are literally thousands of books on the subject! Perhaps not surprisingly, therefore, there are numerous definitions of leadership, many of which contrast the related ideas of leadership and management. Some of these are outlined below.

  • Management focuses on speed and methods – doing things right. Leadership focuses on direction and purpose – doing the right things. (Covey, 1989)
  • Management is about coping with complexity. Leadership, by contrast, is about coping with change. (Kotter, 1990)
  • Leadership is a process whereby an individual influences a group of individuals to achieve a common goal. (Northouse, 2010)
  • A leader shapes and shares a vision which gives point to the work of others. (Handy, 1992)

There are a number of themes of leadership running through these definitions, including:

  • having a vision, direction and purpose
  • developing and establishing a common goal
  • working with change
  • influencing others
  • giving meaning to others.

On reading these definitions, you might have noticed something very important: none make any mention of rank, title, position or authority.

Leadership, and consequently being a leader, is something that exists separate to formal organisational structures and is about the behaviours you demonstrate. In practice, this means that leaders and those demonstrating leadership behaviours can be found at all levels of an organisation, irrespective of rank or title.

Activity 1 Who is a leader?

Timing: Allow approximately 5 minutes

Think of someone you regard as a leader – for example, your manager, a colleague or someone in your community. What is it about them that makes you consider them a leader?

Interactive feature not available in single page view (see it in standard view).


There is no simple answer to the question of who is a leader. As you reflect on your answers to this task you might note real differences between the people you have mentioned. Some might be leaders by virtue of their role, title or position in an organisation, while others might be leaders as a consequence of their personal or other qualities.


Take your learning further

Making the decision to study can be a big step, which is why you'll want a trusted University. The Open University has 50 years’ experience delivering flexible learning and 170,000 students are studying with us right now. Take a look at all Open University courses.

If you are new to University-level study, we offer two introductory routes to our qualifications. You could either choose to start with an Access module, or a module which allows you to count your previous learning towards an Open University qualification. Read our guide on Where to take your learning next for more information.

Not ready for formal University study? Then browse over 1000 free courses on OpenLearn and sign up to our newsletter to hear about new free courses as they are released.

Every year, thousands of students decide to study with The Open University. With over 120 qualifications, we’ve got the right course for you.

Request an Open University prospectus371