What is a Leader?

Leaders are enablers. They make it possible for others to do things, both by motivating them and providing any necessary physical or other support. They are not dictators. 

Some people become leaders because they are appointed in that role (e.g. by employers or organisational heads), or are elected, or because they build an organisation or group around themselves or their project. Yet a person may become a leader without intending to, or without any formal process whatsoever. They seem to just assume or be granted leadership. Different theories have been offered to explain why some people become leaders.


One leadership expert (B.M. Bass, 1985, Leadership and Performance Beyond Expectation) theorised three ways that people can become leaders:

  1. Trait Theory – A person’s personality traits cause a natural evolution into a leadership role.

  2. Crisis Theory – A critical event can create an urgent need for leadership and encourage latent qualities to emerge within an individual.

  3. Transformation Theory - A person can choose to become a leader, intentionally learn leadership skills, and then seek and attain a leadership role.

Situational Leadership Theory

According to this theory, leaders emerge according to the situation in which they find themselves.

As a person matures, their capacity for leadership grows. Maturity includes the capacity to set and pursue goals, willingness to take responsibility, and education and development of the individual or a group through experience.

The appropriate leadership style for a group will depend upon the maturity of the group. Not only must the leader be mature but the leader must be able to assess the maturity of the individuals he/she leads, and use a leadership style which is appropriate to both the situation and the maturity of those individuals. Hershey and Blanchard state that in situational leadership, dimensions are linked to task and relational behaviour.  Task behaviour focuses on defining responsibilities and role.  Relational behaviour is more about providing support for teams.  The extent to which these are used depends on the person’s personal, psychological and job security and maturity. 


Life Cycle of Leadership

As situations change, the need for a particular individual to be a leader changes. Leaders may cease to be leaders and become followers and followers may, in the appropriate situation, become leaders.

Contingency Theories

Contingency theorists basically argue that the most effective leadership style depends on the context and will vary according to context. 



Fielder is one of the leaders of the contingency school, and suggested a continuum ranging from task-focussed to people-focused leadership.  Fielder argued that the most effective leadership style depended on the quality of relationships, the nature of the task and the power position between the leader and his/her followers.  According to Fielder, the style adopted by a leader is relatively stable and is part of their personality and can be predicted. 

Style theories

Some approaches also define leadership by style, and one of these theories defines style according to the way the leader relates to the group, but here, the different styles (authoritarian, laissez-faire and democratic) are defined mostly in terms of the degree to which authority is exercised.

- Authoritarian leaders do most of the key decision-making tasks (such as planning, organising), impose rules and tasks, and enforce compliance.

- Laissez‑faire leaders facilitate group interactions and discussions but leave the group to make decisions and take responsibility for getting things done.

- Democratic leaders are somewhere between the other two, with the leader guiding the group, keeping them focused with relevant questions and problems, and enabling them to make decisions.  This leader generally seeks consensus through consultation and discussion, and decisions are made as a group or by majority.

- Another version of this approach includes a paternalistic style, where the leader seeks group input and ideas but make decisions based on his or her conclusion of what’s good for the team.


Each style has its strong and weak points. For instance, when a decision requires knowledge or skills that only the leader has, or there is no time for consultation or discussion or to get other opinions, a leader may find an authoritarian style more appropriate. When a main goal is to have a group develop new strategies, create ideas, or develop critical thinking and interpersonal skill, the laissez-faire approach might be best. Most leaders will use a combination of styles and as some of the other theories indicate, leaders will often adapt their style to the situation.

The Blake and Mouton Managerial Grid

Blake and Moulton’s managerial grid has been influential in organization development practice.  Leadership style can vary according to the relative importance a leader places on concern for the task in comparison to concern for the people being led. An authoritarian leader, for example, would be someone who is primarily concerned with tasks being successfully completed, who places far less importance on the people they lead. Other types of leader include:

▪          a team leader – one who places high importance on both the task and the relationship. This type of leader leads by example, fostering a team environment where all members may attain their potential, both as team members and individually.

▪          a country club leader – one who places low importance on the task and high import on relationships, using mostly rewards to maintain discipline and encourage a team to reach goals. This leader is almost incapable of employing more punitive coercive and legitimate powers. This inability results from the leader’s fear that using such powers could jeopardize his or her relationships with the team members.

▪          an impoverished leader – a leader who does not consider either the task or the people as being particularly important. He/she is just as likely to delegate and then disappear, allowing the team to do whatever they choose. This approach tends to promote power struggles within a team and is not effective.


In most situations, the team leader type, who gives maximum importance to both the task and the people, would be the preferred type of leader. In some situations though, an authoritarian, country club, or even impoverished leader may be more appropriate.

Informal Leadership

Informal leadership theories look at behaviours that are associated with people who are not appointed to authority, but who assume leadership in other ways.

Inspirational Theories

These theories include transformational and charismatic leadership. Transformational leadership refers to the ability to transform others’ attitude and expectations – inspire them - through their own enthusiasm. The leader appeals to the values and vision in others that causes them to become enthusiastic. The leader will encourage others to be confident in him/her and motivate them for change. Max Weber was one of the first to use the term charismatic leader. Charismatic leadership comes from their compelling vision, commitment, and acceptance of change and offers the potential to others to develop and grow with the vision.  Words such as trust, devotion, commitment, loyalty, inspiration, exceptional, outstanding are often used. 

House and Shamir found a number of behaviours that determine charismatic leaders; these include:

  •  passion

  •  self-sacrifice

  •  symbolic behaviours

  •  vision

  •  risk taking.

The term transformational leadership may be used instead of charismatic leadership.  This offers a distinction between transformational leadership and transactional leadership. Transformational leadership is seen as taking people beyond self-interest, encouraging moral commitment and motivation. Transactional leadership involves the exchange of threats and rewards for compliance.

Path Goal Theory

This approach considers what leaders do to motivate people to perform well and get satisfaction from their work. The theory uses the expectancy theory of motivation, which suggests four leadership styles: supportive, directive, participative and achievement orientated. The style chosen depends on the individual and the task.  For example, routine tasks may require a supportive style, whilst complex tasks may require directive leadership.

Instrumental Theories

Instrumental theories stress the importance of task and person-oriented behaviours by the leader, such as delegation and participation. These are seen as ways to gain effective performance from others.

Four Framework Leadership Model

This model suggests there are four different approaches leaders might take and that a good leader will choose an appropriate behavioural approach for the situation at hand.

  • A structural approach is appropriate for analysing the situation, developing a strategy and then implementing a plan.

A human resource approach is appropriate when a leader wants to act as a catalyst for empowerment of others by showing confidence in, and support for them and by fostering a positive attitude and participation. In effect, the leader using this approach allows the group or individuals to make their own decisions approach is appropriate when the leader needs to act as an advocate, representing the pre-determined needs of those he/she is leading. The leader aims to communicate what is required and persuade participation approach is used to inspire others, communicate a vision and motivate participation. 


Study Leadership -Click here to see our Leadership Course

Suggested Reading

Leadership ebook by John Mason and our staff -click for details