What is leadership?

What is leadership?


Leadership is a key skill that every manager has to master. But there remains a significant amount of fuzziness around what exactly it is. Mark Hughes attempts to clarify the what, why, when, how and who of leadership


The ‘what’ and ‘why’ of leadership


In my view, trying to agree upon what leadership means is rarely time well spent. However, answering the question of ‘why leadership?’ can be far more telling. For many, the answer is relatively simple: Because it’s necessary and important for success.


As the sports journalist, Robert Kitson, puts it:

“Leadership is one of those things which doesn’t really matter until you look around and realise that you do not have any.”




The ‘when?’ question for leadership implicitly asks whether leadership should always rest with the same person. The importance of delegation follows on from such a question. All the great leaders I’ve met have known when to lead and when not to lead. Doing the latter often requires the most courage, and certainly the most trust.


The businessman Philip Flynn summarises it well:

“There are always three leadership choices: 1. Lead 2. Follow 3. Get out of the way. All are valid depending on the context.”




The ‘how’ of leadership often receives the most column inches, and there are numerous books extolling a set number of steps, secrets or ingredients to successful leadership.


Consultancy firms also conduct significant amounts of research on how leaders operate, and a recent study by the firm McKinsey & Company suggested four key behaviours were most important to leadership effectiveness:


  • Being supportive
  • Being strongly orientated on results
  • Seeking different perspectives
  • Solving problems effectively


In addition to competencies, ‘how’ also involves one’s style of leadership. There are numerous leadership styles put forward, and this blog is not the place to review them all; but for those with an interest in this area I recommend the book Primal Leadership by Daniel Goleman, Richard Boyatzis and Annie McKee.


There is general consensus that no single leadership style is superior to all others, and a significant amount of research suggests the best leaders are able to vary their style according to circumstances. Furthermore, whatever their style, great leaders remain authentic:


“Becoming a leader is synonymous with becoming yourself. It is precisely that simple and it is also that difficult.”





Great leaders are invariably tuned into their environment. They sense where there is a need for public displays of leadership, and where a quiet word with an individual is more appropriate.


They also understand that leadership cannot be switched off at their convenience. While people will not always do what a leader asks, they’re invariably listening and watching the leader. A great leader understands the role model status that this implies.


As the trainer David Cotton puts it:

“Everything that you say and do gives permission for your team to say and do the same things.”




For me this is perhaps the most fundamental question when it comes to leadership. Are you the right person to lead? Do you want to lead?


In my mentoring and coaching work, these are often the central questions leaders continually ask themselves. Leadership is not for everyone, and without both the requisite competencies and an authentic motivation for the role, it is best left alone. Not just for your sake, but for those would-be followers.


Mark Hughes, a former chief executive, is founder of mch: positive impact, a UK-based staff development firm that works exclusively with third sector organisations.

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