What is Leadership? Meaning, Definitions, Theories, Styles, Characteristics

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What is Leadership?

Leadership is the process of influencing employees to accomplish organisational objectives. It is the ability of an individual who is known as a leader to motivate others to work with confidence and zeal to attain some predetermined goals.

Or you can say, the leadership forms a vision and the strategies required for achieving organisational goals. The process of leadership should be built on a solid foundation with a definite sense of vision, along with a mission with responsibilities for organisational success.

Definitions of Leadership

There are some definitions of leadership by different authors which are given below:

According to Chester Bernard, leadership is the quality of behaviour of the individuals whereby they guide people in their activities in an organized effort.

According to Livingston, leadership is the ability to awaken in others the desire to follow a common objective.

According to Keith Davis, leadership is a human factor that binds a group together and motivates toward particular goals.

According to Koontz and O’Donnell, leadership is the ability to exert interpersonal influence by means of communication toward the achievement of goals.

According to the Encyclopedia of Social Sciences, leadership is the relation between an individual (leader) and a group (followers) around some common interests and behaving in a manner directed or determined by the individual (leader).

Theories of Leadership

There are numerous leadership theories that provide information about effective leadership. Some main theories of leadership are discussed in this section.

Trait Theory

The trait theory of leadership underscores various personality facets associated with successful leadership in different situations. Theoreticians researching the trait theory tried to emphasise the leadership characteristics from various perspectives.

The trait theory of leadership shows the two most common trait theories:

Allport’s Trait Theory

The theory of Gordon Allport emphasised that the personality of an individual can be studied from the difference between his common traits and personal characteristics.

According to Allport, the common traits of an individual are compared according to six values like being religious, economic, political, social, theoretical and aesthetical.

The common traits of an individual are the personal characteristics that are different and can be categorised as follows:

  • Cardinal traits: These are considered powerful traits and very few people have a personality that is dominated by these traits.

  • Central traits: These traits are common attributes that many individuals have to different degrees. Examples of such traits are being friendly, jovial, loyal agreeable and more.

  • Secondary traits: These traits project the reason why a person behaves differently at times than what is his normal behaviour. For example, a person who is generally happy can feel sad on listening to some particular news.

Cattell’s Trait Theory

Cattell’s trait theory highlights the fact that it is important to study a number of factors before understanding the personality of an individual. He collected data with the help of a questionnaire and analysed it with a statistical technique, known as factor analysis, to identify various traits. Cattell came up with many traits like being warm, being vigilant, being lively, being sensitive, being apprehensive, etc.

Cattell’s trait theory is based on the concept that every individual has traits that are common but may vary to different degrees. These traits stay consistent over a period of time, and these can be measured through various indicators of behavioural studies.

These give an understanding of their identity and the manner in which it will affect others working in an organisation.

Transformational Leadership Theory

According to the transformational leadership theory, a high-performance workforce can be built when leaders are able to inspire their followers to work beyond their job responsibilities.

A transformational leader should have the following characteristics:


It refers to the quality of motivating employees to perform better. A transformational leader should inculcate the feeling of teamwork among employees through his/her enthusiastic and optimistic approach.


It refers to the quality of being rational and logical. A transformational leader should be intellectual to analyse problematic situations and give appropriate solutions.


It refers to the quality of being morally right. A transformational leader should be idealistic if he/she wants his/her followers to be devoted and committed. He/she should not be unfair while dealing with his/her followers.

Behavioural Theory

The behavioural theory was developed scientifically by behaviour-fo- cussed studies. This theory emphasises certain behaviours and actions of leaders and not on their traits or attributes.

As per this theory, leadership ability is exhibited more in the actions and behaviours rather than the personal traits of an individual.

These skills are defined as follows:

  • Technical skills refer to the individual’s knowledge of the system, processes and techniques.
  • Human skills refer to the ability of the individual to be able to interact with other individuals.
  • Conceptual skills refer to the ability of the leader to come up with innovative ideas for running the organisation successfully and strategic decision making.

Contingency Theory

The contingency theory emphasises different factors in a specific situation that determines the style of leadership. The contingency theory was developed by Fred E. Fiedler. According to the contingency theory, no one leadership style is applicable in all situations.

Good leaders need to have the right qualities and they should evaluate the needs of their people according to the situation at hand. The contingency theory suggests that great leadership is a combination of many key variables.

According to Fiedler, for understanding the contingency theory, it is necessary to know the style of the leader, which can be identified through the ‘Least Preferred Coworker Scale (LPC). The LPC has a set of questions that are formulated to identify the kind of employee a leader would most prefer to work with, and, in turn, this would demonstrate the leader’s way of working.

The Fiedler’s Contingency Model tries to match the leaders’ style using LPC according to the situation in which they would succeed. The two types of LPC scores are:

High LPC Score

According to Fiedler, a leader with good personal skills depends on building relationships with others to fulfil tasks. A high LPC score highlights that the leader is people-oriented.

Low LPC Score

As per Fiedler, a leader with a low LPC score will give priority to the task first and will focus on maintaining relationships only if satisfactory outcomes are obtained. This exhibits that the leader is task-oriented.

Styles of Leadership

There are different styles of leadership and their impact on employees which we are going to discuss:

Autocratic Leadership Style

In the autocratic leadership style, employees are managed in an autocratic manner and it is only the leader who likes to have the total control and power to take decisions without involving anybody else.

In this setting, leaders do not like to ask or make suggestions and opinions from anyone. Employees normally do not like this style of leadership.

Impact of Autocratic Leadership Style on Employees

Employees are usually repulsive to this kind of leadership style because of the following reasons:

  • It affects employee productivity and motivation.
  • There is no trust between the leaders and the employees.
  • It has a negative impact on employees.
  • Employees do not like the way decisions are made.
  • It does not have the environment for accepting the creative ideas of the employees.
  • It does not encourage the employees to take ownership of their work.
  • Employees feel insecure in their jobs in this style of leadership.

Democratic Leadership Style

The democratic style of leadership involves employees in the working and decision-making processes of the organisation. Leaders like to share their thoughts and concerns with the employees and it has a major positive impact on employee motivation and productivity.

Impact of Democratic Leadership Style on Employees

Democratic leadership style has the following major advantages:

  • It gives employees a sense of ownership in their role of working for the organisation.
  • It helps enhance the morale of the employees.
  • It allows employees to feel important and involved in the daily operations of the business.
  • It allows their voices to be heard by the management.
  • It creates a positive environment for working.
  • It allows the employees to be innovative and open to new ideas.
  • It gives a platform to the employees for discussion.

Laissez-faire Leadership Style

The laissez-faire leadership style has a very casual approach to leadership. Leaders leave working on the employees and do not like to control or take on responsibilities.

They believe in the employees’ approach towards work and are not interested in the day-to-day monitoring of the work of their employees. They let the employees make their own decisions and set their own tasks.

Impact of Laissez-faire Leadership Style on Employees

The laissez-faire leadership style has the following advantages:

  • Employees become self-motivated and they take on the responsibility for their work.
  • Employees learn to be innovative which is accepted by the organisation.
  • Employees are happy working in this environment.
  • It gives the employees flexible time to balance work and family commitments.
  • The system increases employee retention within the organisation.

Bureaucratic Leadership Style

In the bureaucratic leadership style, leaders follow a structured way of working. They ensure that employees also follow the set procedures. This type of leadership leaves no space to explore new ways to solve issues because leaders prefer to work according to the preset standards. This type of leadership is normally followed in hospitals, universities, banks and governmental organisations to bring down corruption and increase security.

Self-motivated individuals who are highly energetic often feel frustrated in this leadership style because of the organisation’s inability to adapt to the changing environment. For example, Harold Geneen, who was the CEO of International Telephone and Telegraph Corporation (ITT), is considered to be a bureaucratic leader and his success is attributed to his strong focus and bureaucratic style of management.

Charismatic Leadership Style

In the charismatic leadership style, leaders infuse a lot of enthusiasm and boost the energy levels of employees. They work with a goal or a mission and are visionaries who drive their team to gear to a high level of performance. Leaders are dedicated to their organisation and are a boon to the organisation. Lead- ers who adopt this leadership style have the ability to engage large audiences. For example, Mahatma Gandhi, Nelson Mandela etc.

Directive Leadership Style

In the directive leadership style, leaders monitor and guide employees in their work. They delegate tasks, schedule work, maintain records and increase the performance levels of the employees. Directive style is very useful when the employees have low level of motivation or if a conflict arises between different people. It is mostly used in organisations where there is hardly any scope of error. For example, law enforcement, military, etc.

Supportive Leadership Style

In supportive leadership, leaders are friendly and approachable towards employees. They show concern to- wards employees and help them in facing problems while performing work. Under this leadership style, leaders listen carefully to their employees and help them deal with stress. Leaders also train their employees to deal with conflicting issues. For example, Joe Paterno, a former American football player is considered as a supportive leader and coach.

Situational Leadership Style

In the situational leadership style, leaders of the organisation adjust their style to fit the development level of their followers. This style was developed by Kenneth Blanchard and Paul Hersey. In situational leadership, the style may change continually to meet the needs of situation in the organisation.

Hence, situational leaders follow various styles of management to suit the organisational requirement. For example, Jack Stahl, who was the former President of Coca Cola and CEO of Revlon, demonstrated situational leadership style.

Characteristics of Leadership

Leaders play an important role in the growth of any organisation with their leadership skills. A good leader shapes the behaviour of the people and guides them in such a manner that their followers or employees work with full commitment for achieving the objectives of the organisation.

Leadership involves motivating teams and maintaining good interpersonal relations with every individual and leading them towards their goals.

Let us discuss the characteristics of leadership in detail:

Interpersonal process

Leadership depends upon the personal qualities of a leader. The way a leader influences the behaviour of people totally depends on the leader’s ability.

Continuous process

Leadership is a never-ending process. In an organisation, the process of persuading others to do a particular work never ends. Leadership encourages liveliness in the group by encouraging individuals to give their level best.

Group process

Leadership cannot be performed in isolation. In the absence of followers, there is no leadership. Leadership at least require two or more than two persons. It is the process in which one person, i.e., leader directs other subordinates or followers to attain the tasks assigned to them by following specific instructions.

Shape behaviour

Leadership helps an organisation to mould the negative behaviour of employees into positive behaviour. It creates positive culture in the organisation by reinforcing values.

Situational based

Leaders can use different leadership styles on the basis of situations faced by them. There are different styles of leadership such as autocratic, participative and free-rein or Laissez-Faire styles.

Importance of Leadership

Leadership plays a significant role in channelising the efforts of the employees in the right direction. Leaders are able to mobilise the efforts of people by inspiring, supporting and developing enthusiasm.

The role of leadership is critical for organisational development as leaders help in creating and maintaining interpersonal relationships with employees. The success of an organisation, as well as a country, depends on the effectiveness of leadership.

Let us understand the significance of leadership in the organisational development with the help of the following points:

It helps in influencing the behaviour of people

Effective leadership helps in inspiring, shaping and controlling the behaviour of people through skills and capabilities. A good leader converts the negative attitude of subordinates into positive by directing and influencing them through reward, punishment, recognition and praise.

It enables implementation of changes

The business environment keeps on changing at a rapid pace due to which an organisation needs to keep up with the changing trends. A good leader uses experience to implement changes without much resistance from the employees’ side since leaders are able to influence them. Leaders have a positive mindset and they move forward using their experience to guide workers through the changing environment without feeling insecure.

It resolves conflicts effectively

Effective leadership skills help in solving conflicts between employers and employees or employees and employees. The leader uses skills to understand the nature of the conflicts and find out possible ways for resolving them peacefully and on time. This helps to avoid unfavourable conditions within the organisation. A good leader handles employees by listening to them carefully.

It helps in initiating action

An effective leadership enables employees to perform their duties with commitment. Good leaders initiate employees to act in a particular manner until the goal is accomplished. A leader is a visionary who predicts the results of a particular action in future and guides subordinates through effective communication skills which help them to start work. A leader integrates various activities and maintains coordination between various departments.

It helps in training and development of the subordinates

A leader understands that change in the methods of production or technology may require implementation of training and development programme. This will help in increasing the skills and technical abilities of the employees. In this way, leaders make their subordinates cable of performing complex task and also help in developing the qualities of leaders in their subordinates.

It motivates people

A good leader can understand the needs of the people and motivate them by fulfilling their needs and keeping them satisfied. A leader guides employees with their work and influences employees to perform their roles and responsibilities with the available resources. Employees are given financial and non-financial rewards according to their performance which motivates them to work with full commitment.

Leadership Grid

A leadership grid is a tool used for identifying the concern of leaders for production and people in an organisation. The leadership grid is used by organisations for getting the work done to achieve their goals. The leadership grid theory was developed by Robert Blake and Jane Mouton, who focussed on developing a grid based on two aspects, task orientation and relationship orientation.

The leadership grid provides five different leadership styles to the managers. In the Y-axis, the leadership grid shows concern for people and in the X-axis, it shows concern for production. The five styles in the leadership grid are country club style, team leader style, impoverished style, produce style and middle of the road style. Figure shows the leadership grid given by Blake and Mouton:

The various forms of behaviour of leaders based on their concern for production and concern for people are as follows:

Impoverished or indifferent leadership

In this form of leadership, leaders are not much concerned with the production or the people. They are more self-centred and have little regard for either the level of production or the employees.

Produce or perish leadership

In this form of leadership, leaders have their main focus on production which is their only goal and have little concern for employees. The employees must follow the direction of the leaders who are task-oriented. These leaders are considered as authoritarians.

Middle of the road leadership

In this form of leadership, leaders maintain a balance between the level of production and the needs of people. It is a situation of compromise which leads to average or below-average performance. Leaders are involved in keeping a balance between the goals of the organisation and the needs of the employees.

Country club leadership

In this form of leadership, leaders have more concern for the requirements of people than the production level. These leaders believe that if employees are satisfied with their jobs, then they will give good performance and automatically the organisation’s productivity will improve.

Team leader leadership

In this form of leadership, leaders have a lot of concern for the people and also for the levels of production for attaining organisational goals. This is the most effective form of leadership and is mostly preferred by different organisations. The leader is committed to people and also to the goals of the organisation.

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