John Kotter wrote a fabulous book about leading change. The central character was a penguin called Fred!

John Kotter wrote a fabulous book about leading change. The central character was a penguin called Fred!

What is leadership?  As Crainer and Dearlove (2008) say “ask 100 executives and you will get 100 different answers. Ask the experts, the academics and journalists who spend their lives researching leadership, and you will still be searching for a definite answer”. The literature on leadership is voluminous. Millions of words and hundreds of books are written on the subject every year. One colleague, with more patience than me, counted 237 separate definitions of leadership as part of a review of leadership literature.

I agree with Michael Fullan and Alan Boyle (2011) who argue that “the advice to leaders is getting too voluminous … [and] doubt current effective leaders became successful by studying the research literature. It is not that the research literature is unhelpful, but rather that it needs to be put into perspective so that individual change leaders can learn to become more effective in practical, meaningful ways” (p.2).

So what do the experts agree about?

There are three established schools of leadership thinking;

  • the first focuses on leader traits, dispositions and personality;
  • the second looks at leader roles, behaviours and actions,
  • the third explores the different styles of leadership required in different situations and contexts.

There is also a more recent school of thought that frames leadership as a shared or interactive phenomena. This school of thought reflects the idea that to succeed in the volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous contexts of contemporary business and public service organisations people at all ‘levels’ need to take leadership roles as and when the situation demands. It views leadership as a function of our organisations, social groups and communities that helps us make a difference to causes of common interest; getting things done and making a positive impact on other people’s lives.

So, not only are we becoming alive to the importance of leadership for business, public service and the great causes of our time; sustainability, equality and freedom – we are beginning to recognise the importance of smaller scale acts of leadership in our work groups, communities and families; the common acts of leadership that bring people together to build a community hall, fight off an unwarranted supermarket development or help teenagers get involved in productive leisure and community activities.

Self role context graphic

This highlights the point that leadership exists in relation to the self-identity of individuals, their given (or assumed) role as leader and the relationship between themselves, their role and the needs of the immediate and wider context. Each of these is shifting and subject to alternate interpretations, depending on whose reference point is taken. This is why it is such a difficult subject to pin down. And such a difficult role to fulfill!

The literature on organisational leadership commonly refers to four further themes which occupy leaders’  attention. They are: clarity about the purpose and aims of the organisation or endeavour and how these will be achieved (strategy); the culture of human interaction in fulfilling these aims; the capacity of the organisation, its systems and structures to address its strategic aims and the relationship between the organisation (and its members/staff) and the wide range of stakeholders whose interests are represented by the endeavour. This will include customers, board of Directors, unions, governors, trustees and public interest.


When I ask managers what leadership means to them, they often talk about specific leaders – often national or international politicians past and present. People like John F. Kennedy, Gandhi or Martin Luther King. They are often men! And historically, leadership was the preserve of ‘great men’. Margaret Thatcher or Indira Gandhi being rare female examples of internationally renowned national leaders. In more recent times, we have begun to view Directors and managers as people who lead organisations and businesses; and leadership as the act of inspiring successful change or innovation. People often talk about the inspirational leadership of people like Steve Jobs or Richard Branson in business (still men! Although more women are creeping into the dialogue. Women such Sheryl Sandberg of Facebook and Anita Roddick of Bodyshop – who was the first female pioneer of truly ethical business).

The conversation then turns to the qualities these leaders exhibit and how they achieve success – so people intuitively pay attention to the same issues found in schools of thought described above. Over and over again leaders in business and public service refer to a handful of core qualities that define effective leadership. In my experience, the labels may vary but people commonly refer to one or more of the following. Leaders demonstrate:

  • Vision, inspiration
  • Resolve, determination, grit, resilience
  • Creativity, innovation, adaptability, learning skills
  • Judgement, integrity, values
  • Enabling, engaging others
  • Self awareness, emotional intelligence, good listening, and ask great questions.

It’s a daunting list of qualities, and no wonder many leaders feel like ‘imposters’ as they step into new roles. It’s almost impossible to live up to ALL these qualities, all of the time. That’s one reason why leadership is best shared. It takes many individuals to provide our groups, teams or organisations with these leadership qualities consistently over time.


Crainer, S. & Dearlove, D., 2008. The Future of Leadership,

Fullan, M. & Boyle, A., 2011. Reflections on the change leadership landscape, Nottingham. NCSL.