What Is a Leader

Badaracco (2002) says that from the time we are children, we are taught to admire great leaders but that focusing on bold acts entrenched in our history is not the same as paying attention to the quiet capabilities of leadership. What is a leader, exactly, and how does one become an effective leader?

Authors, theorists, consultants, and managers have proposed multitudinous answers to that question, and just about all of them have been right. Most of us know that leader has more than one definition, at least in the practical sense. Goleman (1998a, 2000) further indicates that leadership can be defined in different ways by different people but that a leader's single most important task is to get results, although different situations call for different types of leadership. Birrer (2002) defines different types of leaders in categories such as specialists and achievers, investigators and developers. Four domains in one presented study (Robbins, Bradley, Spicer, and Mecklenburg, 2001) were industry knowledge, technical skill, conceptual and analytical reasoning, and emotional and interpersonal intelligence. The word leader is very often defined in terms of what a leader does or is skilled in rather than what a leader is.

To lead effectively, say Kouzes and Posner (1995), is to translate a vision into reality and then to sustain it through the empowerment of followers. Empowerment occurs when organizations allow the channeling of skills and talents into activities that support a defined vision. This is not purely a rational activity, not solely a function of knowing the business or understanding what the numbers mean. Some established leaders know the business very well and have agendas, visions, and goals, but are unable to communicate or inspire a sharing of that vision or to establish mutual trust. These leaders are unable to lead. They plan and envision, but they have not created the emotional bond necessary to inspire and help followers set and achieve goals around the vision.

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