Leadership is the process by which a leader influences another person or group and focuses the followers’ behavior on a goal or outcome. Persuading a subordinate to clean up his or her work area could be seen as a form of leadership, as could convincing hundreds of people to volunteer for disaster relief work. Influencing people and focusing that influence toward a tangible outcome are fundamental components of the leadership process. Leadership can occur in a variety of settings, either formal or informal. In formal settings, such as business organizations, individuals may receive a formal job assignment in which they are expected to lead other organizational members. This formalized leadership role is often called supervision. Although leadership and supervision are similar, there are some significant differences between the two concepts.
Leadership versus Management
Leadership is an informal process that involves many people. In the process, one person attempts to influence the others and to produce a change in the behavior of his or her followers. Leadership occurs any time one person influences another, and it can occur with or without a formal organization. If an individual is repeatedly successful at influencing others, that individual may eventually be perceived as a leader. Individuals who lead in one situation may not lead in another because tasks vary, as well as the individuals present in a specific group setting.
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Management, on the other hand, involves a more formal relationship: One person is formally designated to manage others, and that action is sanctioned by a formal organization. Management or supervision tends to have an administrative and rational focus, with the smooth and efficient operation of the formal organization as its defining feature. A supervisory role, once established, tends to perpetuate itself and is modified only by formal action. The leader of a group may change quickly, whereas a supervisor has a formally designated role that is fairly permanent. Part of what supervisors attempt to do is to lead people. So in actuality, leadership is a psychological process that can occur in the formalized role of supervision as well as in less formal settings. Thus, supervision occurs when someone who is formally designated and sanctioned by an organization attempts to influence (lead) others toward organizationally sanctioned goals.
Early Leadership Research
Although the concept of leadership has been around since people first began to organize themselves, the formal study of leadership is relatively new. Early attempts to investigate leadership focused on great leaders and their common characteristics. Though systematically identifying common characteristics was a good idea, the list of common leadership characteristics or traits quickly became too long to be of any practical value. Leaders were identified as more extraverted, social, talkative, original, intelligent, dominant, athletic, and healthy than the people they led, but those were only a few of the pertinent traits. As the list of traits became longer, the prospect of finding individuals with all or even most of the traits seemed remote. And for every trait that was identified, there were notable exceptions. For example, although Abraham Lincoln and George Washington, like many leaders, were taller than their followers, Napoleon and Joan of Arc were admittedly influential leaders who did not tower over others. The search for the key characteristics of leadership was not particularly fruitful, and ultimately, research on leadership turned to different concerns.
Instead of focusing on the individual characteristics of leaders, some researchers turned their attention to the way that power helps people lead. The logic behind this approach is that leadership involves a process of influence, and power is the potential to influence. Thus, if we can understand the power that a leader uses, we can better understand how leaders influence and lead.
The types of power that leaders use can vary considerably. For example, leaders may influence their followers by offering rewards (reward power) or by threatening punishment (coercive power); these methods may be effective if the leader can control the followers’ environment. In organizations in which leaders are anointed with formal authority, legitimate power can also be very influential. Military organizations, in which the legitimate power structure is made obvious by the rank system and its associated obligations, are the best examples. Two other kinds of power that are commonly identified are referent power and expert power. Referent power allows a leader to influence others because the followers identify strongly with or admire the leader, as in the case of a charismatic leader or a famous person. Finally, the expertise that an individual possesses in a particular field can influence people to follow him or her. This expert power tends to be situation specific, but it is valued highly when the expertise is pertinent. Reward, coercive, and legitimate power are typically associated with the roles that people have in formal organizations, whereas referent and expert power are clearly associated with the perceived strengths of particular individuals.
To lead, one must exercise an appropriate level of power and use different types of power to influence followers. For example, commercial airline pilots have great influence over their passengers because of their expert ability to fly the airplane and the legitimate authority that government agencies give pilots as aircraft commanders. Pilots have considerable power over passengers until both the pilot and the passengers leave the airplane, at which point they are all simply people trying to leave the airport. In this situation, the pilot no longer has power because both the pilot and the passengers are citizens with no legitimate power over each other, and the pilot’s expertise is no longer relevant. Understanding leadership from a power perspective is helpful, but many have found this approach wanting because power does not explain all of the complexities of leadership.
Although leader power provides some insight into the leadership process, a different research approach developed as researchers began to systematically study how leaders behave. Instead of focusing on traits or the use of power, the behavior of leaders has become the focus of much scientific research on leadership. By systematically studying how leaders behave in a wide variety of situations, this approach has identified two primary leader behaviors that seem to have great influence on followers. These behaviors appear to be relatively independent of one another and relate to important outcomes such as group productivity and satisfaction. Initiating structure, or a focus on the task, and consideration, or a focus on relationships, have been identified as contributing most to effective leadership.
Initiating structure focuses on the leader’s ability to provide structure to his or her subordinates so that tasks can be accomplished. A highly structuring leader makes assignments, sets goals, divides the labor, and clarifies the tasks to be done. The focus on task accomplishment is a fundamental concern for many groups. The second important behavior, consideration, includes being concerned for the welfare of followers, asking for followers’ opinions, and encouraging two-way communication. This behavior focuses on the leader’s ability to build relationships with followers.
Leaders who are highly focused on task accomplishment generally have more productive groups than leaders with lower task-related behavior. Leaders who focus on relationships and the people in the group generally have more satisfied followers than leaders who tend not to demonstrate relationship-oriented behavior. Although the empirical evidence does not always completely support the concept, leaders are encouraged to exhibit high levels of both task- and relationship-oriented behaviors.
Situational Leadership Theories
Although the notion that ideal leaders should exhibit high levels of both task- and relationship-oriented behavior has been embraced by many, empirical research is only mildly supportive of this simple solution. Exceptions to the general rule are noteworthy: Sometimes groups do not need additional focus on the task, and in some instances, followers may be highly satisfied even when the leader pays little attention to relationships. Though having both a relationship and task orientation is probably a good general approach to leadership, differences in the situations in which leaders operate must also be considered. Situational leadership theories suggest that the type of leadership needed depends on situational variables such as the task, the followers, and existing relationships within the group.
For example, a group of well-educated and highly dedicated scientists would likely have markedly different leadership needs than a group of inexperienced and newly hired employees. The scientists likely understand their immediate task, monitor their own performance well, derive significant satisfaction from their work, and have very little need for supervision or leadership. Such a group could operate for a long period of time with little outside influence. In fact, in this situation, any attempt to lead could be viewed as micromanagement of a group that can function on its own. On the other hand, newly hired employees are likely working in unfamiliar territory; they need guidance on what they should be doing, have limited interest in the task at hand, and see little immediate connection between their present activities and long-term success, and they may derive little satisfaction directly from their work. In this case, the leader needs to provide structure for the task; he or she may also be a source of satisfaction by providing encouragement and by fostering positive relationships.
Based on these two situations, it seems obvious that effective leadership behavior varies across situations. Depending on the maturity level of the group and the task that is to be performed, different leader behaviors are likely to be effective. With a mature group of highly trained people who are intrinsically motivated, a low level of both task and relationship leadership is probably appropriate. Leaders who stay out of the way are likely to be seen as effective in this situation. For groups that lack clarity about what they are to do and are not intrinsically motivated by the immediate task, guidance, structure, support, and possibly a firm hand from a leader are likely to be effective. One group needs both significant task guidance and strong relationship support form the leader, whereas the other group needs very little in the way of leadership. Thus, the effectiveness of leader behavior is dependent on the situation, and both the leader and situational variables must be considered.
Although it is tempting to look at leadership as a group-level phenomenon and assume that all people in a particular group have exactly the same relationship with their leader, this belief is probably an oversimplification. Leaders do, in fact, have a different relationship with each of their followers, and some followers are closer to and rewarded more frequently by their leader. These so-called insiders are privy to all that a close relationship brings—extra attention from the leader, tangible and intangible rewards, mentoring, and task assistance. Those who are not insiders may receive acceptable leadership but miss out on the extra benefits that a close relationship offers. Currently, considerable research focuses on the differences in the interactions between leaders and their individual followers.
Current thinking about leadership in day-to-day interactions, or what is often called transactional leadership, holds that different leader behaviors will be effective depending on the situation. Generally, task-oriented leader behavior is needed and helpful when followers have need for additional information, guidance, and structure. Likewise, the extent to which the leader needs to develop and support relationships within the group depends on the existing cohesion of the group, the intrinsic motivation associated with the task, and general feelings of mutual support. The most effective leader behavior depends on what her or his group needs. Thus, an effective transactional leader needs to diagnose how much structure and how much leader support are needed and then deliver the desirable amount of each behavior. It must also be acknowledged that insiders may have qualitatively different relationships with their leader than those who are outsiders.
A leader may be adept at providing appropriate support so that followers can respond to normal challenges, but many leaders also inspire and motivate followers to do more than meet immediate challenges.
The ability to energize or inspire people to pursue new goals and to focus on changing and improving the status quo is captured in the notion of transformational leadership. Transformational leaders clearly communicate their vision and inspire followers to create new ideas and make a real difference in their work. Transformational leaders move organizations and people to new levels of performance. Emerging research suggests that transformational leaders may have charismatic as well as other qualities.
Leadership can dramatically affect the functioning and effectiveness of any organization. Current thinking on transactional leadership suggests that effective leaders adjust their task and relationship behavior to meet follower and situational needs. Effective transactional leaders help organizations run efficiently, but transformational leaders can also motivate people to attain higher levels of creativity and performance.
- Bass, B. M. (1990). Bass and Stogdills handbook of leadership: Theory, research, and managerial applications. New York: Free Press.
- Bass, B. M. (1997). Does the transactional-transformational leadership paradigm transcend organizational boundaries? American Psychologist, 52, 130-139.
- Hughes, R. L., Ginnett, R. C., & Curphy, G. J. (2002). Leadership: Enhancing the lessons of experience. New York: McGraw-Hill.
- Yukl, G. (1998). Leadership in organizations. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall.