Essay Writing about WHAT IS LEADERSHIP?


Let us dispose of two fundamental errors; the assertions that leaders are born and not made; and the opposing view that anyone can be trained to be an effective leader. The truth lays half-way between.

The Born Leader

There have been many effective leaders who have never had any formal training in leadership but this does not prove that leaders are born and not made. There are no little girls or boys who arrive in the world equipped with the ability to organize, plan, set objectives and satisfy the other requirements of the effective leader.

They may, however, be born with certain personality fac­tors which are conducive to effective leadership once they have learned a great deal about people and the world about them.

One example is Nelson who was smart enough, to realize that if, before a battle, he explained his plans to his cap­tains him would have a better chance of success. He realized what should be obvious to any twentieth-century leader: that if people understand the objectives and the plan then they will have at least an evens chance of achieving what the boss wants.

Nelson added this ‘consultative’ approach in the face of the contemporary belief that if a leader explained his ideas to his people he would diminish his authority.

Sadly, there are still so-called leaders (some of whom would claim to be born leaders) who, for one reason or an­other, fail to inform their people. They then blame the people when things go wrong.

The need to communicate (and how to do it) is one of the many skills which can be taught and which do not al­ways come naturally to everyone who aspires to lead.

The Taught Leader

If someone is born with the instincts of an angry Rottweiler and an I.Q. of around 50 it is most unlikely that he or she can be trained to be an effective leader.

Such people can ‘lead’ by threats, bullying and brute force but the usual result is a disaster. Such people are often effec­tive talkers and can be very persuasive.

Tom Lloyd, former editor of Financial Weekly, writing about Robert Maxwell in the Daily Telegraph (24 November 1991) described Maxwell’s style of management as ‘crude, brutal and inefficient’. Here was a man who built a great busi­ness empire, which after his death, was shown to be founded on sand. His death left his successors battling to save the empire and ward off the bankers who were persuaded by Maxwell to lend him vast sums of money.

Whilst much may be said about the prudence of the bank­ers it is significant that Maxwell should have been so persua­sive whilst adopting management styles which were not, in Lloyd’s view, efficient.

Maxwell was no doubt a man with a high IQ and was probably capable of learning how to lead effectively. It is also likely that, even if taught, his personality was such that he would have done no more than pay lip-service to the use of delegation techniques, to finding ways of keeping good peo­ple or using the brain power of his people to the full.

As Lloyd said:

Maxwell’s public persona appealed to executives frustrated by lack of excitement in their existing careers and he could turn on enough charm at first meeting to persuade them
to join. But within three months people were often looking
for a way out

Lloyd went on in his article to say that Maxwell ‘didn’t back people, he bought them and, once bought, they were expected to be compliant and quiet’.

The Truth Lies Half-way

Few of us fall into the Nelson category or the Maxwell category.

Most of us are born with an IQ around the average, are moderately sensitive to other people and our environment and can apply a modicum of common sense to our actions.

We can also improve our leadership capabilities by learn­ing the techniques that improve effectiveness and by practicing them.

The Basic Requirements

A successful leader must obviously have sufficient tech­nical, commercial or other knowledge related to his or her particular field.

Such knowledge, whilst essential, does nothing in itself to contribute to effective leadership. There are three other broad attributes that me would-be leader must develop:

  • The ‘right’ personal attitudes
  • The ability to motivate people for whom he or she is responsible
  • The ability to create and maintain a ‘team’
  • These requirements demand, in turn, knowledge of a range of techniques such as:
  • How to set objectives and devise plans
  • How to train and develop individuals
  • Communication, delegation and appraisal

These skills, which can be taught, will take the would-be leader a great deal further than the basic charm and per­suasiveness with which he or she may have been born. Appli­cation of these skills will get results. This course focuses on self-analysis of your leadership skills – a current inventory, if you like. You will also a team in an activity and receive feed­back on your leadership skills. You are referred to other courses on our site for detailed training in the skills mentioned above – specifically Essential Management Skills, Appraisal Tech­niques and Train the Trainer.

The Right Personal Attitudes

Amongst others, Malcom Bird argues that there are three main attributes which effective leaders must develop;

  • The right personal attitudes
  • The ability to motivate others
  • The skills to build and maintain a team

The start is, however, the right personal attributes. The would-be effective leader starts by taking a good look in the mirror and examining his or her own attitudes.

The ‘right’ attitudes are the bedrock of being able to lead well – and consistently well – at all levels of management and in any field of activity. These are:

  • Awareness (put into practice) that people matter and that the effective leader takes people with him or her
  • An understanding of the many human characteris­tics which can inhibit progress and how the resulting obstacles can be overcome
  • A willingness to look for and size up the facts -avoiding shooting from the hip. This demands the personal discipline to forgo the easy option of taking off-the-cuff decisions in favour of judgment based on ‘research’ and analysis
  • Readiness to make changes. Without change, which can sometimes be painful, progress is impossible. The effective leader suppresses his or her own natural reluctance to accept change and will actually initiate it. Then they will follow it through with persistence and patience, accompanied by a willingness to adapt or alter the direction or nature of the change until a successful result is achieved
  • Willingness to learn. No matter how experienced or well-qualified a leader may be there is always more to learn. The world changes and new ideas emerge. These new ideas – which can sometimes be learned from subordinates – are ignored at the leader’s peril
  • Enthusiasm for the training and development of subordinates. The effective leader will encourage learning in his or her people and create opportunities for them to gain knowledge and skills
  • A preference for working in a systematic and ordered way. Disciplined activity will be preferred to chaos and ad hoc actions
  • Ability to set objectives and devise plans to meet them – as opposed to working day to day on an expedi­ency basis. This requires the discipline to recognize and distinguish between what is urgent and what is important and then to set priorities
  • Readiness to face problems and deal with them-avoiding the temptation to find the excuse to do some­thing else in the hope that the problems will go away
  • Willingness to give up ‘technical work’ which he or she may be good at and enjoy in favour or managing the human resources, that is, leading the people
  • Acceptance that learning and using management techniques appropriate to his or her job will be more successful than an instinctive approach

What You Have to Be or Become

It is a fact that some men possess an inbred superiority that gives them a dominating influence over their contempo­raries, and marks them out unmistakably for leadership. This phenomenon is as certain as it is mysterious. It is apparent in every association of human beings, in every variety of cir­cumstances and on every plane of culture. In a school among boys, in a college among the students, in a factory, shipyard, or a mine among the workmen, as certainly as in the Church and in the Nation, there are those who, with an assured and unquestioned title, take the leading place, and shape the gen­eral conduct.

So declared an eminent lecturer on leadership before the University of St. Andrews in 1934. Since time immemorial people have sought to understand this natural phenomenon of leadership. What is it that gives a person this influence over his fellows?

As this lecturer believed, most people thought that lead­ership was in ‘inbred superiority’ – in other words, you are either born with it or not. The born leader will emerge natu­rally as the leader because his qualities of mind, spirit and character give him that ‘assured and unquestioned title’.

Research Findings

Since 1934 quite a lot of leaders, observers of leaders, and trainers of leaders have been prepared to list the qualities that they believe constitute born leadership. The difficulty is that the lists vary considerably, even allowing for the fact that the compilers are often using rough synonyms for the same trait. Also they become rather long. In fact there are a bewil­dering number of trait names from which the student of lead­ership could make up his portfolio. Two researchers have compiled a list of some 17,000 words that can be used for describing personality.

A study by Professor C. Bird of the University of Min­nesota in 1940 looked at 20 experimental investigations into leadership and found that only 5 per cent of the traits appear in three or more of the lists.

A questionnaire-survey of 75 top executives, carried out by the American business journal, Fortune, listed fifteen ex­ecutive qualities: judgment, initiative, integrity, foresight, energy, drive, human relations skill, decisiveness, dependabil­ity, emotional stability, fairness, ambition, dedication, objec­tivity and co-operation. Nearly a third of the 75 said that they thought all these qualities have no generally-accepted mean­ing. For instance, the definitions of dependability included 147 different concepts. Some executives even gave as many as eight or nine.

Apart from this apparent confusion, there is a second drawback to the qualities or traits approach. It does not form a good basis for leadership development. ‘Smith is not a born leader yet’, wrote one manager about his subordinate. What can the manager do about it? What can Smith do? The as­sumption that leaders are born and not made favours an em­phasis upon selection rather than training for leadership. It tends to favour early identification of those with the silver spoon of innate leadership in their mouths.

It would be wrong, however, to dismiss the qualities approach altogether. It has been the custom to do so among academic social scientists studying leadership for two broad reasons. First, they could not invent the necessary instruments for scientifically identifying such intangibles as qualities of character, nor is it likely that they will do so. That is why the historian will always have as much to teach us about leader­ship as the behavioural scientist. Secondly, value judgments or hidden assumptions crept into the story. Social scientists tend to be strongly egalitarian. They dislike any idea that a person might have an ‘inbred superiority’ over another. There­fore, they are apt to discountenance the whole notion of lead­ership exercised by one person.

Characteristics of Leaders

Leaders tend to possess and exemplify the qualities ex­pected or required in their working groups.

Physical courage (which appears on most of the lists of military leadership) will not actually make you a leader in battle, but you cannot be one without it. If you aspire to be a sales manager you should possess in large measures the quali­ties of a good salesman. The head of an engineering depart­ment ought to exemplify the characteristics of an engineer; otherwise he will not gain and hold respect. Thus, a leader should mirror the group’s characteristics.

Do you have to be tall to be a leader? Research into these more general characteristics bears out what history tells us. De Gaulle was tall; Napoleon was short. It really does not matter. Some general factors, such as intelligence and apti­tude, do emerge from the research.

After a comprehensive survey of 124 books and articles which reported attempts to study the traits and characteristics of leaders, R.M. Stogdill offered two conclusions based on positive evidence from 15 or more of the studies surveyed:

The average person who occupies a position of leader­ship exceeds the average member of his group in the follow­ing respects:

  • intelligence
  • scholarship
  • dependability in exercising responsibilities
  • activity and social participation, and
  • socio-economic status

The qualities, characteristics, and skills required in a leader are determined to a large extent by the demands of the situation in which he is to function as a leader.

Yet everyone agrees that a leader needs to have person­ality in the common sense of that word. A leader may not be what P.G. Wodehouse called a ‘matey’ person. But have you ever met a true leader who totally lacked enthusiasm or warmth? Most leaders also have character. Someone once defined character as what you do with your personality and temperament that inherited bundle of strengths and weak­nesses. A better way of looking at it is to say that character is that part of personality that seems morally valuable to us. It is that sum of moral qualities by which a person is judged, apart from such factors as intelligence, competence or special tal­ents.

Character in Leadership

‘Character stands for self-discipline, loyalty, readiness to accept responsibility, and willingness to admit mistakes. It stands for selflessness, modesty, humility, willingness to sac­rifice when necessary, and, in my opinion, for faith in God. Let me illustrate.

During a critical phase of the Battle of the Bulge, when I commanded the 18th Airborne Corps, another corps com­mander just entering the fight next to me remarked: “I’m glad to have you on my flank. It’s character that counts.” I had long known him, and I knew what he meant I replied: “That goes for me too”. There was no amplification. None was nec­essary. Each knew the other would stick however great the pressure; would extend help before it was asked, if he could; and would tell the truth, seek no self-glory, and everlastingly keep his word. Such trust breeds confidence and successes. General Mathew B. Ridgway, later Supreme Commander of the United Nations Forces in Korea Whether a person tends to be introvert or extrovert is morally neither here nor there, but we do admire steadfast­ness in adversity or moral courage and compassion. What is the secret of this moral strength? Many writers on leadership have stressed the importance of integrity, which Viscount Slim defined as ‘the quality which makes people trusts you’.

When there is this lack of trust in working relationships it is often a symptom of a failure in personal or corporate integrity. America forced President Nixon from office because he was judged not to be a man of integrity. ‘I have often found’, said Harold Macmillan, ‘that a man who trusts nobody is apt to be the kind of man that nobody trusts’.

The primary meaning of integrity is wholeness, but it also has a moral sense. It suggests the type of person who adheres to some code of moral, artistic or other values. Promi­nent among those values is the concept of truth. That is why most people virtually equate integrity with honesty or sincer­ity. Although it is impossible to prove it, I believe that hold­ing firmly to sovereign values outside you grows a whole­ness of personality and moral strength of character. The per­son of integrity will always be tested. The first real test comes when the demands of truth or good appear to conflict with your self-interest or prospects. Which do you choose? By go­ing through such ordeals you are forging your personal integ­rity – only as iron is plunged repeatedly into fire and then hammered on the anvil does it become steel.