Characteristics of leadership


The characteristics of leadership are examined in the context of business management.


Shackleton (1995) defined leadership as the process in which an individual influences other group members towards the attainment of group or organisational goals.

According to Torrington et al (2008) the leader may or may not be the nominal head of a group, implying that managers may or may not be leaders, and leaders may or may not be managers. Hollington (2006) argues that any individual may act as a manager at one stage and a leader at another time, depending on the situation. It should not be assumed that leadership is always a downward process, as there are times when employees or managers lead upwards. There is a degree of confusion between management and leadership, which is clarified by Northouse and Northouse (2009) who state that while management is concerned with the provision or order and consistency within organisations, the prime function of leadership is to drive change and development. Management seeks order and stability, whereas leadership aims to adapt behaviour and promote beneficial change.

Qualities of leadership

The understanding of leadership involves a blend of approaches according to Adair (2003). The combination of personal qualities (what you are), situational (what you know) and functional (what you do) all form a critical combination which distinguishes a leader. The attributes of a good leader are that they should possess most of the characteristics of the field they operate in. As an example, the leader of a law firm should typically have the characteristics of a good lawyer. More generic qualities are associated with leadership, such as enthusiasm, integrity, moral courage, warmth, and a combination of toughness and fairness. Both generic and typical qualities are necessary for recognition as a leader, supplemented with the natural authority which differentiates leadership from others.

The increasing global competition in business has led to a focus on developing high-powered organisations which can differentiate themselves from the competition by the performance of their employees. According to Swart et al (2005) leadership had been identified as a key to the high-performance organisation. Leadership is seen as power to inspire, motivate and fill employees with the desire to change the organisation and to be the best. Leaders can act as change role models within the organisation.

Building commitment to a common organisational purpose is essential to gaining competitive advantage and learning and development of employees plays a major part in delivering this. Dave Ulrich, whose work has had a profound influence on thinking within the human resources profession, has developed a framework for guidance of human resource professionals in developing commitment and common core values to organisations (Ulrich and Smallwood 2003). According to Harrison (2005) a key capability proposed in Ulrich’s framework is leadership. Harrison relates that the latest human resource research findings show that there is an overwhelming need for effective leaders in the face of the radical change agenda facing the public and not-for-profit sectors of the economy or at the highly competitive environment in which all private sector organisations now operate. Leaders at corporate level are accountable for the results of the organisation and their brand has a major influence on shareholder confidence. At the line manager level leaders play a key role in communicating and enacting the organisations vision and in implementing the human resource strategies to raise employees’ commitment to it.

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Whether leadership characteristics can be developed within a person is the subject of debate. Price (2007) offers the following quote from Bennis (1990): ‘I would argue that more leaders have been made by accident, circumstances, sheer grit, or will than by all the leadership courses put together’. Price argues that whereas good leaders are comparatively easy to recognise when they are in positions of authority, developing people to achieve the necessary qualities is not so easy. Just as the nature of leadership is not fully understood, the appropriate methods of training and leadership are a matter of controversy. It is arguable that many supposed leadership training courses are actually teaching management skills rather than those of leadership. Training courses have concentrated on identifying the nature of leadership and the form in which the individual trainee wishes to adopt, which incorporates a range of options from being able to give orders to a more specialised form. Self0awareness is often an optional training requirement for those who feel they lack identified leadership skills, by delivering a general boost in self-confidence. In each case the training depends of factors such as the participants’ level of seniority, or the organisational culture in which the individual operates. Clearly it would be inappropriate for a junior manager to adopt the manner of a managing director, or apply authoritarian forms of leadership in a business whole culture encourages wide participation in decision-making.

Organisational strategy may be clearly stated and communicated, but the primary key to successful strategy implementation is leadership. Daft (2006) states that leadership is the ability to influence people to adopt the new behaviour needed for strategy implementation. An important part of implementing strategy is building consensus. People throughout the organisation must believe in the new strategy and have a strong commitment to achieving the vision and goals. Leadership means using persuasion, motivating employees, and shaping culture and values to support the new strategy. As an example Daft relates that CEO Sam Palasino of IBM used leadership to get people throughout the organisation aligned with the new e-business strategy. His actions included dismantling the executive committee that previously presided over strategic initiatives and replace it with committees made up of people from all over the company who now have a voice in strategy formulation and implementation. He invested considerable money in teaching managers at all levels how to lead rather than control their staff. He is also communicating with people all over the company, appealing to their sense of pride and motivating them to make IBM great once more by uniting behind the strategic vision, and facilitating the implementation of the strategy by making people feel they are participating, understand the strategy and therefore have more commitment to achieving it.

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Leadership in achieving successful strategy can be attributed to the drive and determination of a charismatic leader. Ruddock (2008) relates the Michael O’Leary relentlessly drove change in what was a failing airline by concentrating on changing the public’s perception of air travel as being somehow elevated above other forms of transport and turned the concept into one as commonplace as boarding a bus. The low-cost-no frills strategy was driven into every aspect of the airlines operation and O’Leary’s considerable ability to generate publicity at every possible opportunity was utilised to the full. Every possible cost-saving action was taken, from negotiation of landing fees to relentless promotion of cheap flights with the lowering of passenger expectations of the service provided by such low costs. Ryanair, like many airlines today is suffering from the economic depression, but has up until recently been profitable and is still planning expansion at a time when many airlines are near collapse. This is in no small part due to the leadership qualities of Michael O’Leary.

The context in which leadership occurs is often a deciding factor in whether it is successful o not. The kind of leadership exercised will be related to the nature of the task and the people being led. It will also depend on the environment, and the actual leader. An analysis of the qualities of leadership in terms of intelligence, initiative, self-assurance and other characteristics is of limited value. The qualities required may be different in different circumstances, and it is important to take account of the variable leaders have to deal with, in particular, the task in hand, the group being led, and the leaders position relative to the group (Armstrong 2006).

Leadership exists at different levels according to Adair (2006). There is the team level, where the leader is in charge of ten to fifteen people. The operational leader is responsible for a significant part of the business, such as a business unit, division or key functional department such as marketing. Operational leaders often have more than one team leader reporting to them. At the strategic level, the leader, often designated as the CEO, is leading the entire organisation. Strategic leadership is the art of leading a large body of people. The key to achieving sustainable business success is to have excellence in leadership at all three levels. Strategic, operational and team leaders need to work harmoniously together as the organisation’s leadership team.

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Cole (1997) relates that leadership is exercised against a background of the culture of the organisation. and this fact has important implications for the amount of power assigned to leaders as well as the styles that will be permitted. It does not follow that in any one organisation all leaders will adopt a less task-centred style than line managers, because their particular sub-cultures may be sufficiently different from the organisations as a whole. The sub-culture is a value-system of one part of an organisation which is a variance with the dominant value-system of the organisation as a whole. As an example, the research and development leader may be focussed on future product development while the marketing leader will aim to maximise market penetration.


Leadership appears to be characterised by many factors, some of which are inherent in the personality and actions of the individual, while others are dictated by circumstance, but are almost always accompanied by change in the circumstances of the organisation being led. Leadership is often confused with management, and the nature of leadership is not fully understood.


  • Adair, J. (2006) Leadership and Motivation, Kogan Page Limited, London, p 33.
  • Adair, J. (2003) The Inspirational Leader, Kogan Page Limited, London, p 25.
  • Armstrong, M. (2006), A Handbook of Human Resource Management Practice, 10th Edition, Kogan Page Limited, London, p 300.
  • Bennis, W. (1990 Managing the Dream: Leadership in the 21st Century, Training: The Magazine of Human resource development 27 (5): 44-6.
  • Cole, G.A. (1997), Personnel Management, 4th Edition, Letts Educational , London, p 57.
  • Daft, R.L. (2006), The New Era of Management, Thomson South-Western, USA, p 292.
  • Harrison, R. (2005), Learning and Development, 4th Edition, Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development, London, p 256.
  • Hollington, S. (2006) How to Lead your Boss, People Management, Vol 12, no 24, 7 December, pp 44-5.
  • Northouse, P.G, Northouse, P.G. (2009) Leadership: Theory and Practice, Edition 5, SAGE Publications, London, p 10.
  • Price, A. (2007) Human Resource Management in a Business Context, 3rd Edition, Cengage Learning EMEA, London, p 531.
  • Ruddock, A. ((2008), Michael O’Leary: A Life in Full Flight, Penguin Books, London, p 194.
  • Shackleton, V. (1995), Business Leadership, Routledge, London, p 2.
  • Swart, J. Mann, C. Brown, S. Price, A. (2005) Human Resource Development, Elsevier Butterworth Heinemann, London, p 179.
  • Torrington, D. Hall, L. Taylor, S. (2008), Human Resource Management, Seventh Edition, FT Prentice Hall, London, p 318.
  • Ulrich, D. Smallwood, R. (2002), Why the Bottom Line Isn’t: How to Build Value Through People and Organisations, John Wiley & Sons, Inc., USA, p 43.
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