The substance of leadership lies in behaviour not in style

I was recently invited by our local college (gymnasium) to give a lecture about my views on leadership. I was a little surprised that some of the questions were focused on the style of leadership rather than on substance. For example, styles are sometimes classified as being:

  1. empathic or
  2. visionary or
  3. coaching or
  4. commanding or
  5. driving or
  6. democratic.

Without the need for cooperation, the word “leader” is undefined. Without a leader the word “leadership” is undefined. For me, leadership is entirely about behaviour. This classification of styles is not, in fact, about what constitutes leadership or even about different kinds of leadership. It is merely a list of styles which is entirely superficial. It places  an undue emphasis on form rather than on substance; on the cosmetics of what leadership looks like rather than the fundamental behaviour involved. The use of “democratic” as a qualifier for a leadership style merely panders to a fashionable sense of political correctness and is inherently self-contradictory. The behaviour needed for leadership is no different whether in a monarchy or a democracy or a dictatorship.  The behaviour is no different whether in the military or in government or in the corporate world or in sport. 

I prefer my own definition of what a leader is.

“A leader is a person who behaves in such a manner as to induce the necessary behaviour from others, individually and collectively, towards a goal”

With this definition, the various behavioural styles above only describe particular facets of behavioural interactions between a leader and others. A leader has just two functions, which are necessary and sufficient:

  1. To create and establish goals, and
  2. to induce the behaviour necessary from others, individually and collectively, towards those goals.

Behavioural styles of a leader are then, and must be, as varied as may be necessary to induce the required behaviour from others. Depending upon the size of the group involved and their competence, a leader will need to use different styles to motivate and encourage different members. He is the conductor of an orchestra of behaviours. He may have to be a tyrant occasionally, a commander with some, show empathy with others, or be consultative with a few. The style in play may well vary with different leaders and different members. Behavioural style may vary over time or depending upon the prevailing external conditions. The so-called “democratic” style is really a very particular style of behaviour. It is useful, at times, in getting consensus – if consensus is what is needed – when dealing, for example, with an expert group where all members have very high levels of specialized competence. Group members have different roles and can vary widely in competence. A consensus of the incompetent is of no great value. Any leader who generally subordinates his behaviour to the consensus, or to a majority view to determine decisions, effectively abdicates leadership. A “democratic” leadership is inherently contradictory. You can have leadership in a democracy but not democracy within leadership. Any “style” of leadership behaviour must always be subordinated to the primary function of inducing the behaviour necessary from others to achieve a goal.

By considering the two components separately, it becomes much easier not only to assess people for leadership roles but also to tailor education and training to suit particular individuals.

  1. Can the individual envision, create and establish goals? 
  2. Can the individual get the necessary behaviour from others?

It then naturally follows that being visionary and having skills for strategy or planning or forecasting or communication will be beneficial for goal-setting. Similarly, it becomes obvious that people-skills, motivation, communication, inspiration and persuasion are beneficial for getting the required behaviour from others. It is, I have found, counter-productive to over-think and unnecessarily complicate the basic principles. 

Leadership is about the effectiveness of the leader’s behaviour. The empirical evidence of 200,000 years as modern humans is that a group with leadership is more effective than one without. Leadership is a vector quantity with both magnitude and direction. The direction comes from the creation and setting of goals and the magnitude is a measure of the “goodness” of the leadership which, in turn, is a measure of the competence of the leader to induce the required behaviour of others.

I do not claim that leadership is easy. But I do claim that the principles of leadership are simple and straightforward.  A leader must be able to create and establish goals and must then be able to induce the behaviour of others towards those goals. It is complex but it is not more complicated than that.


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One Response to “The substance of leadership lies in behaviour not in style”

  1. S S SHANKAR Says:

    The most APT definition I have come across. Yes, setting goals – short term to achieve long term and influencing the behavior of his TEAM..is aTRUE LEADER.

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