“People don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.” -John C. Maxwell
Maxwell’s simple, yet profound, statement illustrates how complex and important leadership can be. Taken at its face value, it is a simple sentence in structure. However, exploring each part of the statement shows that leadership as a position is only part of the equation. Displaying this “care” takes deliberate planning, interactions, and high-quality communication. More importantly, this process takes time, as is describes the relationship leaders build with followers. Successful leaders build on a foundation of solid relationships. This article defines leadership, outlines leadership philosophies, explores lessons learned through the Change Leadership class at Winona State University, and describes a 21st-century leader.
Leadership is many things. It is a position that people occupy and a title they wear. It is a relationship among groups of individuals. Leadership is a concept that is dynamic and constantly changing. Leadership is complex in that there is no simple definition of the term. At the same time, there are many things that leadership is not. Leadership is not an accomplishment, nor is leadership a single action: it is a process. Additionally, it is not a “one size fits all” approach. Every person, group, and organization is different, and therefore, no single leadership theory/style will be successful in every case. Leadership has no right or wrong theories/styles; there are simply more effective and less effective styles given the individual leader and their unique situations. Ultimately, leadership is a process in which an individual influences a group to achieve a common goal.
Numerous theories regarding leadership exist. Some theories help people to better understand leadership, such as Traits, Skills, and Behaviors, while others focus on leadership processes (Situational, Transformational, Authentic, and Servant). To varying degrees of success, each leadership philosophy has merits for a leader, although its effectiveness depends on unique factors including personality and situation.
Learning theories of Traits, Skills, and Behavioral Leadership can help aspiring leaders understand the basics of leadership. Together, these theories describe qualities and actions that successful leaders embody and display on an everyday basis. Each of these theories has components that are found in other theories. These theories are easy to define and therefore more tangible: the traits, skills, and behaviors of leaders are readily visible. Other theories are not as tangible or easily seen, so using components of the Traits, Skills, and Behavioral Theories help people to better understand more complex approaches.
Situational, Transformational, Authentic, and Servant Leadership all have a major commonality: these focus on the relationship between leaders and followers, specifically meeting the needs of the followers first. Situational Leadership demonstrates the complex nature of leadership. It illustrates the importance of personally knowing individual followers (or groups of followers) and making sure that you approach every situation with the appropriate leadership style. Transformational and Servant Leadership both work to raise the overall success and achievement of all employees, which in turn increases the overall success of an organization. By having the leaders support the followers, the theories suggest all will improve and perform at a higher level. Authentic Leadership provides the foundation for the leader-follower relationship and lays out the framework for ensuring high-quality interactions between leaders and followers.
Key Takeaways from Change Leadership
This author has always been intrigued by leadership. I remember being in middle school and thinking about what characteristics classmates possessed that makes one more of a leader than another, what causes people to gravitate towards others, and what makes them stand out? I now realize that I was in the beginning stages of forming my view on leadership – what it is and what makes good leaders. A better understanding of these questions has been achieved through the readings, activities, and class discussions of the Change Leadership course.
The varying descriptions of good leadership and its foundational concepts can be overwhelming. When describing leaders, it is important to pay attention to the differences between traits and skills. Traits describe the leader’s personality, while skills are demonstrated in actions. Take, for example, organizational skills. A leader is organized when they manage well and work efficiently. A leader that is good at organizing is good at setting processes and procedures into place. Just because a leader is organized, does not mean they are good at organizing. Conversely, just because a leader organizes well does not mean they are organized.
Noting the differences between traits and skills helps keep perspectives of leadership clear. Each leadership philosophy is different, but it is very apparent that most of the theories contain components of others. Theories such as Servant and Transformational Leadership include parts of Skill, Traits, and Behavioral Leadership. Without understanding the differences between describing the leader traits or actions, an already complex process can become even more complicated.
Putting It All Together
Leadership is a process. Each action within the process is separate and unique. This uniqueness stems from the diverse characteristics and backgrounds of individual people. Because of this uniqueness, there is no blueprint for a perfect leader across all settings. What works for one leader in a situation may not work for another leader in a similar situation. Although it might be a similar situation, every leader is different, as are their followers, the relationships between the leader-followers, and their situations. Successful leaders must develop their leadership toolbox so that the right leadership tools are available when the need arises. These tools are a combination of skills and traits and are displayed through everyday behaviors and relationships.
Great leaders understand that they are never “off the clock.” When in a leadership position, people will always view the leader through that role, regardless of the setting. Because leaders are always viewed as leaders, leadership (present or not) is constant. It is not a task that can be checked off or accomplished through a meeting or conversation, it occurs throughout every action and interaction. Leadership also requires a lot of continued learning. Because of the complex and dynamic nature of leadership, leaders have no choice but to learn through doing. The challenge for leaders is to constantly learn from experiences. Mistakes will happen, and there will undoubtedly be failure along the way. Leaders must not be afraid to fail as it is part of every learning process. The only true failure in leadership occurs when leaders fail to learn.