Academic journal article Public Personnel Management

The Essence of Leadership

Academic journal article Public Personnel Management

The Essence of Leadership

Article excerpt

Since the first two people came together for the purpose of completing a task, the subject of leadership has been debated. Typically the debate centers around several areas of inquiry: Are leaders born or can they be developed? What is leadership? What role does the situation play in shaping leadership behavior? Is there a difference between leadership and management? What role do followers play in the leadership process? How do leaders acquire and use power? Are there different expectations for male and female leaders? What role do mentors play in the creation of leaders?

One can readily determine that these areas of inquiry are not only the subject matter for a vast body of academic research, but that they can serve as a practical point of departure for organizations interested in developing or enhancing leadership capability. The purpose of this article is to address the needs of the practitioner. Nevertheless, the accomplishment of that objective requires a brief examination of the major research findings associated with the study of leadership. It is to that task that we now turn our attention.


Leadership means different things to different people. Many individuals focus on specific traits or characteristics: courage, intelligence, conviction, energy, and so forth. Others attempt to distinguish between a leader and a manager. Notwithstanding the seemingly tireless debate regarding the components of leadership, several aspects of leadership are important for the practitioner to keep in mind.

While there are numerous definitions of leadership, most have the common element that it is a group process that involves interaction between at least two persons in pursuit of a goal (Yukl 1989, p. 3). The manner in which leadership is exercised within the group then becomes the source of much scholarly debate. For instance, holding a gun to one's head is a different method of gaining compliance then is gaining compliance by making a polite request. Moreover, many argue that moral consequence is relevant to judgements regarding effective leadership; for example, Hitler's impact on the world was far different than that of Gandhi's.

These types of arguments, while interesting to many and providing the subject matter for numerous researchers, tend to do little to address the concerns of the practitioner regarding the grooming of a more effective leader. Thus, for the purpose of this article, leader effectiveness is judged in terms of the attainment of goals in a manner that is not forcefully resisted by group members. Given that we have stated a definition for leadership and leadership effectiveness, it is important to determine whether it is important to distinguish the types of tasks a leader performs from those a manager performs.

Descriptions of leader activity are less than concrete and measurable. Leaders, on the one hand, are viewed as intuitive, dreamers, innovators, visionaries, inspired, and charismatic (Nadler, Kuhnert, Sashkin, Rosenbach and Taylor 1989). The activities that describe managers, on the other hand, appear more concrete. In his classic article "The Manager's Job", Henry Mintzberg (1975) found the nature of managerial work to fall into discernible tasks such as monitoring the environment, handling disturbances affecting areas of work, allocating resources as required, and negotiating contracts or worker disputes. It, or course, is obvious that leaders as well must be cognizant of and have the ability to conduct these activities.

It is clear that these distinctions while interesting are not productive for the purpose of deciding the activities on which one needs to focus to groom or train future leaders. The whole argument about the difference between managers and leaders is unproductive for that reason. Accordingly, for the purpose of this article the terms manager and leader are used interchangeably.


The earliest studies of leadership focus on the traits associated with great leaders. …

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