What is a Leader?

See also: Leadership Trait Theory

Everyone has their own ideas about the meaning of the words ‘leader’ and ‘leadership’. The words are widely used across organisations and countries, and in a huge range of contexts, including religious, national, voluntary and organisational.

However, the only idea that can truly be said to be completely common to all concepts of ‘leadership’ is that the leader is the person in charge of, or ‘leading’, their followers.

This page explains more what is meant by the terms ‘leader’ and ‘leadership’. It also explains that leadership can be both formal and informal, and short- and longer-term.

Defining a Leader

lead v.t. to show the way by going first: to precede: … to direct: to guide: to conduct

leader n. one who leads or goes first: a chief: the head of a party, expedition etc.

Chambers English Dictionary, 1989 edition.

This definition therefore covers both formal and informal leadership. The leader might simply be the person at the front of the group (either in a physical or metaphorical sense), or they may be appointed to a position of leadership.

Other definitions of leadership

Fredrik Arnander, in his 2013 book “We Are All Leaders”, suggested that leadership is “not a matter of position, but mindset”.

In an article in Nigeria’s Premium Times, Bamidele Ademola-Olateju stated:

A leader goes in the front, leads the way and by his actions; people follow.”

Nelson Mandela, the late, great leader of South Africa, had this to say:

It is better to lead from behind and to put others in front, especially when you celebrate victory when nice things occur. You take the front line when there is danger. Then people will appreciate your leadership.

It is clear from all the definitions of leadership that a leader must have followers. By definition, to go first, there must be other people behind you.

He who thinketh he leadeth and hath no one following him is only taking a walk.


Formal and Informal Leadership

A leadership appointment, such as a chief executive role, carries a degree of formal authority and power.

In other words, the chief executive can, by virtue of their position, ask other people to do things, and expect to be obeyed. They can also delegate their authority to other people: members of the board, for example, or senior and junior managers within the organisation. These people can then exercise that power on the leader’s behalf.

However, few chief executives, or any other leader for that matter, can afford to rely only on the power and authority vested in their position.

They also need informal power.

This is the power that comes from people wanting to follow the leader. It is the result of the leader being inspiring, or charismatic, or creating a vision that people want to believe in, or simply that the leader is doing what their followers believe is the right thing to do. There is more about how to develop informal power in our pages on leadership skills.

Without this informal power, any leader, no matter what their formal position in the organisation, will struggle to achieve anything.

When a leader only has formal power, people tend to agree to do what they want while face-to-face. However, once they are out of reach, they will probably either do nothing, or something completely different that they think is the right thing to do.

Good or Bad Leadership?

Unfortunately for organisations and individuals, not all those appointed to positions of power are necessarily good leaders. It is actually quite hard to define good leadership, or even good facets of leadership. However, it is quite easy to identify some fairly dysfunctional styles of leadership, which at least gives new leaders an idea of what to avoid!

Dysfunctional leadership includes approaches where:

  1. The leader is the sole decision-maker and arbiter of all things

    This approach sees the leader as the only person who can have ideas or make decisions for the organisation—which in this context could include a business, a family, or even a small voluntary group. The rest of the organisation must, therefore, be followers. This means that they take no initiative and make no decisions.  These people are also free of responsibility for the outcomes of their actions.

    This presents a big problem for the organisation as a whole and followers as individuals, because there is:

    • No synergy;
    • Little or initiative;
    • Little or no incentive for anyone to do anything “good” except follow orders; and
    • Very little reason for anyone not to do “bad” things that are within the letter of the law.

    As the organisation grows, and there are more decisions to be made, each one also takes longer. The organisation therefore tends to get stuck and is unable to move rapidly and in an agile way to respond to environmental changes.

  2. The leader is always right.

    We all make mistakes. It is a part of being human. However, some leaders are not prepared to admit that they have made a mistake. They must be right all the time. Those around them soon learn that the only way to succeed in the organisation is to say ‘yes’ to the leader.

    There are two main problems with this:

    • First, nobody is right all the time. If a leader sets themselves up as always correct, it will rapidly become clear both within and beyond the organisation that this is not the case. The leader’s reputation will suffer, and they will find it much harder to wield informal power. Their level of influence beyond the organisation will also suffer.

    • Second, nobody will want to challenge anything, even if they know it is wrong.  A willingness to debate ideas is a sign of a healthy organisation, and one that can experiment and innovate. Failure to challenge poor or biased thinking will lead to poor ideas, and ultimately, organisational failure.

    The big problem with both of these patterns is that the longer this type of leader is in post, the harder it is for the organisation to recover.

    The leader becomes less tolerant of independent thought, and the led become less capable of it—or, more likely, anyone who is capable moves on.  This is fine, until the leader retires. At this point, the organisation may struggle with succession planning.

    The past has showed time and again that:

    • Families with a commanding father or mother tend to be dysfunctional.

    • Nations with a cult of personality around a single “great helmsman” tend to suffer in the long run. Apart from hereditary monarchies, very few ‘rulers’ have managed to hand over power to the next generation. From Oliver Cromwell up to modern-day totalitarian regimes, the point of succession has often been the point at which the country clearly stopped and said ‘No, enough is enough.’

    • Companies ruled by the iron hand of their founder fail when the founder dies or retires, even if they have been grooming a successor to take over. Large numbers of ‘family firms’ do not make it into or through the second generation.

Emergent Leaders

Most of the leadership that has been discussed here relates to formal positions of leadership. However, there is plenty of evidence to suggest that anyone can lead, even if they only do so briefly. There is also no need for any formal appointment to determine leadership.

Examples of this type of ‘emergent’ leadership include:

  • A child at the playground suggesting that a group of children might play hide-and-seek together. The words ‘Let’s play hide-and-seek’ are enough—provided the other children agree—to give that child a leadership role, however briefly. It may even last long enough that they are permitted to say who should be the seeker in the first game.

  • A member of a book club suggesting a particular title to read, or that it might be a suitable time to start discussion and/or move on to the next question or issue for discussion.

  • A team member in a business who, when the team manager is off sick, suggests how the team might coordinate their lunch breaks to ensure that the phones are always manned.

  • Someone who demonstrates maturity and calm when difficult changes are proposed at work, modelling the behaviours that managers would like to see from everyone.

  • The first person on the scene of an accident briefly taking a coordinating role. They might, for example, provide first aid and ask someone to call the emergency services. They will probably be perceived as a leader until the emergency services arrive or they are able to hand the leadership over to someone more qualified, such as a passer-by with appropriate qualifications.

Emergent leadership can also be extremely frivolous. Derek Sivers uploaded a video on YouTube entitled ‘Leadership Lessons from Dancing Guy’, which clearly shows how a person can, with no particular vision, and certainly no rhetoric or verbal communication, become a leader in style or fashion. Just by doing something fun, it is possible to attract followers, and therefore by definition become a leader.

A final thought

Leaders come in all shapes and sizes and are seen across all aspects of human life and endeavour. It seems likely that we are all capable of being leaders somewhere and sometime, if we wish to do so and are given the right encouragement and incentives.

Further Reading from Skills You Need

The Skills You Need Guide to Leadership

The Skills You Need Guide to Leadership eBooks

Learn more about the skills you need to be an effective leader.

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