Leadership: An Introduction to Fundamental Concepts and Styles

By: Anne Breen




“There was a time when I thought that brains were everything.  That view has dimmed recently.  I think brains are important, but now I also look for good team-builders, good communicators, and courageous people who don’t get stuck with an idea.  You need people who are more nimble, who have the ability to lead organizations in changing and tumultuous times comfortably, without panicking.”                        

- Larry Bossidy, Chairman & CEO, Allied Signal, Inc.



I.                    Introduction


What makes a good leader?  This question has bothered people for centuries.  Many look to the individual’s intellectual capability (IQ) as a marker of leadership but it has become clear that this offers little competitive advantage, especially since most members of professional and technical fields are in the top 10% of intelligence.  In 1998, Daniel Goleman in partnership with the consulting firm of Hay/McBer, recognized that 90% of the difference separating the average and the best leaders lies within their grasp of emotional competencies, i.e. self-awareness, self-management, social awareness, and social skill.1  In fact, only one cognitive ability, pattern recognition, appears to differentiate outstanding leaders from average leaders; while emotional intelligence is twice as important as IQ and technical expertise combined and four times as important for overall success. 


II.                 Leadership Style


Leadership has often been described as a continuum of two extreme styles, autocratic and democratic.  However, it appears that leadership styles vary from situation to situation and are not an either/or continuum.2 Hersey and Blanchard describe four leadership styles with varying amounts of directive and supportive behavior.  Directive behavior can be described as a one-way communication in which the leader clearly dictates the role of the follower with a high level of supervision.  On the contrary, supportive behavior is a two-way communication that encourages interaction by the follower in the decision-making process.  The choice of the style depends upon three variables: the amount of direction the leader provides, the amount of support and encouragement the leader provides, and the amount of follower involvement in decision-making.3  

It has been suggested that the development level of the followers may be the best guide of the amount of direction and/or support that should be provided in a particular situation.3  The leader must understand not only the ability but the willingness of the follower to perform the task at hand.  Ability describes the technical aspect of work and willingness incorporates confidence and motivation to perform the task at hand.  A follower’s competence may vary from task to task and a highly adaptive leader is able to adjust their level of support and direction accordingly.  In addition, a successful leader creates a culture in the organization that allows the followers to increase their willingness and ability so that they may be more independent in their level of functioning.  This type of environment assists both leaders and followers in increasing their performance capacity. What has become clear over the years is that a “best” leadership style does not exist; rather a successful leader is one that matches the style with the current situation to maximize productivity and human satisfaction.   The adaptability of a leader appears to be his or her greatest asset.

A random sample of 3,871 executives from a database of over 20,000 executives worldwide was analyzed in an attempt to determine the characteristics of effective leaders.  The consulting firm of Hay/McBer found six distinct leadership styles, each of which stems from different aspects of emotional intelligence (EI).  The following is a table that describes the six leadership styles.1








Demand immediate compliance

Mobilizes people toward a vision

Creates harmony and builds emotional bonds

Forges consensus through participation

Sets high standards for performance

Develops people for the future

EI: achieve, initiative, self-control

EI: self-confidence, empathy, change catalyst

EI: empathy, building relationships, communication

EI: collaboration, team leadership, communication

EI: conscientiousness, drive to achieve, initiative

EI: developing others, empathy, self-awareness

To be used in crisis or to start a turnaround

To be used when change requires new vision or to provide clear direction

To be used to motivate people in stress or to heal team conflicts

To be used to build consensus or get employee input

To be used to get quick results from a motivated and competent team

To be used to help improve performance or develop strengths in employees

Negative impact upon climate

Most strongly positive impact upon climate

Positive impact upon climate

Positive impact upon climate

Negative impact upon climate

Positive impact upon climate



The coercive style is the least flexible and its use should be limited to emergency situations, like a pending takeover or recovery from natural disasters.  Its failure to foster pride or to support the development of initiative on the part of its employees places the largest constraint on its utility.  On the opposite end of the spectrum, the authoritative style is the most effective in every aspect of an organization’s climate.  An authoritative leader provides a clear vision that motivates the employees to be creative in their pursuit of the organization’s mission while providing a supportive structure.  However, an authoritative leader must resist the temptation to be overbearing, especially in the presence of experts and peers.  The affiliative style is based upon a caring and nurturing approach, which works well in conjunction with the authoritative style.  Affiliative leaders attempt to develop trust and create harmony through the use of continuous positive feedback.  These features allow for the development of bonds, teamwork, and communication that are needed when new teams are forming or tension exists within a current group.  The successful implementation of this style greatly depends upon the development level of the employee.  This highly supportive style is not a successful combination with an employee that requires a high level of direction and may leave an employee in that situation rudderless.  With the focus upon positive feedback there is a tendency when using this style to overlook poor performance.  The weaknesses of the affiliative style just described highlight the need to mesh the six different leadership styles, and specifically point to the use of the authoritative style in close conjunction with the affiliative style when a leader finds an employee rudderless. 1

Similar to the affiliative style, the democratic style requires highly developed and competent constituents to respond appropriately to the open-ended questions and request for opinions.  A leader uses this style to develop buy-in and build trust among workers and peers.  Through the use of the democratic style the leader asks employees to participate in the decision-making and in doing so fosters respect and commitment on the part of the employee.  Obviously, the use of this style is limited in times of crisis when constituents tend to require direction more than support from their leader.  However, this style may be helpful to guide the leader and generate a new vision for an organization.  The pacesetting style reminds us that a skilled leader is able to adapt his or her leadership style to each situation.  This style has the potential to destroy climate by not providing a clear vision yet demanding high performance.  As the name suggests the pacesetting style is guided by the desire for high performance standards while maintaining a tight agenda.  An effective leader recognizes that a highly motivated and competent crew in need of little direction will respond well to the pacesetting style.  The coaching style is an important tool to be used when a leader recognizes an employee’s potential for success.  The effective use of this style requires an employee to possess both the willingness and ability to improve his or her performance and a patient leader committed to the development of the employee.  While this style focuses upon personal development it also improves performance.  As employees tap their strengths and acknowledge their weaknesses they are better able to cope with challenges, experiment with new ideas, and accept responsibility for failures.  The use of this style requires a considerable investment of time on the part of the leader but a successful leader understands the power of this tool and its contribution to the future success of the organization.1

Emotional intelligence describes an individual’s ability to manage his or her self, as well as other relationships effectively.  It consists of four fundamental capabilities and their corresponding set of competencies.1  The fundamental capabilities include: self-awareness (self-confidence), self-management (self-control, initiative, adaptability, and trustworthiness), social awareness (empathy and service orientation), and social skill (influence, communication, conflict management, and collaboration).  Interestingly, the research of Hay/McBer indicates that effective leaders intertwine each leadership style in their daily practice, anticipating and adapting their style to the needs of each situation.  Similarly, David McClelland, a Harvard University psychologist, found that leaders with strengths in six or more emotional intelligence competencies were far more effective than their peers who lacked such strengths.1 

The research of Hay/McBer, headed by Mary Fontaine and Ruth Jacobs, analyzed the specific behaviors of executives in an attempt to discover how leaders handle crisis, motivate employees, manage change, and impact the organization’s climate or working environment.  Psychologists George Litwin, Richard Stringer, and McClelland described “climate” as incorporating six key factors that influence an organization’s working environment. The six factors that are felt to incorporate the term “climate” include flexibility, responsibility, standards, rewards (performance feedback), clarity, and commitment.  Fontaine and Jacobs went a step further and evaluated the affect each leadership style had upon the different aspects of “climate”.  The research of Fontaine and Jacobs confirms what has been stated previously that none of the leadership styles should be relied upon exclusively, but they go a step further to state that all of these styles have a measurable effect upon each of the factors associated with an organization’s climate.  Although only four of the six leadership styles (authoritative, affiliative, democratic, and coaching) have a consistently positive impact upon climate each of the styles has a role in the daily performance of a leader.  Also, there appears to be a direct correlation between climate and financial performance and that along with economic conditions and competitive dynamics, climate appears to have positive impact upon performance. 

What is clear from the research mentioned above, the more styles that a leader possesses the better.  The skilled leaders are sensitive to the development level of their constituents and the impact they are having upon others and their keen awareness allows them to adjust their style to get the best results.1  Leaders that discover that they only possess a few of the leadership styles have two options, they can associate themselves with other peers that possess the style that they lack or they can expand their own styles.  For a leader to successfully expand his or her repertories of leadership styles he or she must have a great deal of insight about his or her strengths and weaknesses.  By acknowledging which emotional intelligence competencies that one is lacking and making a commitment to develop some of them a leader is adding more power to his or her tool kit.

In summary, emotionally intelligent leaders create and maintain relationships based on trust with their employees.  They possess the skills to confront problems promptly, challenge others appropriately, remain optimistic, and constructively channel impulses.  In addition, emotionally intelligent leaders know their values and emotions and use that knowledge to make decisions.  The success of their actions often depends upon their ability to accurately read the emotions of others.


III.               The Context


Leadership has been described as a process of persuasion where the leader (or team of leaders) acts as an example for a group in order to motivate and induce the group to pursue the objectives of the leader and the organization.  In this regard it is important to realize that leaders cannot be separated from the historic context in which they arise or the culture of their working environment.  They are integral parts of the system in which they arise yet dependent upon two-way communication with constituents and the forces that create the circumstances in which they emerge. In addition, leaders are accountable for the performance of their organization or the success of the movement that they are heading regardless of the context in which it occurs.  There are many kinds of leaders with a wide array of styles and qualities, and there appears to be no limit to the variety.  These complex individuals are selective in displaying different sides of their nature in the different situations that arise.  

Although the outcomes of an organization or movement are often attributed to a leader or a team of leaders, it is apparent that outcomes are the result of a complex set of interactions among group members plus environmental and historical forces.4  Often times as a leader struggles to bring about results he or she simultaneously encounters forces not only beyond his or her control but occasionally beyond his or her knowledge that hinder the results.  Under these circumstances consequences may not be an accurate measure of leadership.  Unfortunately, this is not realized until the situation is examined closely in light of the context in which it developed.  For example, President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s efforts to bolster the economy of the United States in the middle-to-late-1930s were greatly assisted by a force that did not originate with his economic analysis of the situation, rather with the start of World War II.4 

A leader performs in the frame of an environmental and historical context.  This includes the acceptance of the actions of his or her predecessors and the performance left behind for the successors.  In addition, some of the changes sought by leaders, like the movement toward racial equality and women’s rights, involve slow changes that evolve under the scrutiny of public debate.  Some leaders may leave this world before their success is recognized and others may have the opinions of their performance reversed by future generations.  Regardless, the performance of a leader is complex and requires an assessment of the context under which it arises. 


IV.              Leadership as a System

A system has been described as a completely functioning process dependent upon many parts to create results.  Each part of a system is interdependent and consequently only understood in the context of the entire system.  Every part of the system has a central purpose that is linked to the global goal of the entire system and achieving the global goal is contingent upon the interaction of the parts.  A system can be analyzed by evaluating its parts but it can only be understood as an entire entity.  It is essential that a system have a clearly defined purpose otherwise it is difficult to accurately assess the success or failure of the system, and it is even more difficult to redesign or improve the system. 

Traditionally, leaders are described as decisive, assertive, task-orienting individuals who are also adept at diplomacy.  Edward Deming introduced a new and provocative leadership philosophy in Tokyo in the 1950s that brought the concepts of systems thinking into the frame of leadership, or the idea that everything is an interdependent part of a system.  In this context the system is the method by which results are achieved and any failure to achieve a desired outcome is a failure of the system.  This differs considerably from the traditional focus upon the individual within organizations, with success or failures measured as a result of the performance of an individual or group of individuals.  Because a system includes interactive and interdependent parts, success and failure must be measured at the level of the system, not the individual.  Implementing change at an individual level does not translate to a change for the system. 

It is with these ideas in mind that leadership can be thought of as a system.  As stated earlier, research and experience has shown that there is no formula for leadership.  Adopting a single leadership style does not equate success nor does it encompass all aspects of leadership.  Generally, good leadership encompasses the presence and spirit of the leader and the relationship developed with those who are led. This includes understanding not only the skills and capabilities of the constituents but also accommodating their needs and values.  Within this integrated network of a leader or team of leaders and the followers lies a system, and it is a system with purpose, technology, relationships, and a community that drives the organization or the mission.  Good leadership acknowledges the framework of this system and incorporates an understanding of this framework in daily activities.  A good leader is merely one part of such a system. 

In running a successful system a leader must establish and continually reinforce the aim and vision underlying the structure of the organization.  Even the most developed constituents need to be reminded of the mission of the organization, and most importantly their role in achieving the mission.  Leading a system also requires an understanding of the expertise and technology necessary to remain competitive and survive.  Skillful leaders who recognize leadership as a system understand the importance of human interaction and the need to establish a sense of community within the organization.  Relationships at all levels within an organization are the key to achieving the mission and a good leader is instrumental in creating an atmosphere of cooperation and pride in the workplace.  Similarly, there are organizational interactions within an enterprise that often encounter structural and philosophic barriers to effective and efficient workflow.  Leadership requires the knowledge and understanding of the interdependence of the microsystems within an organization, and encourages collaboration amongst workers in planning activities so that the organization can achieve the mission.  A successful leadership system encourages and supports leadership at various levels in a hierarchical organization and is dependent upon this process.  A leader is responsible for ensuring that leading occurs so that an organization can function as an integrated system.   

The functions of leadership have been described as the following: (1) the ability to create a clear focus, purpose or vision, (2) understanding the organization as a system, like the system described above with interdependent points of interaction that are aligned in their effort, (3) the ability to created channels of communication and connection within the organization while accepting the value of diversity, and (4) developing an understanding within the organization of new technology or methodology for improvement.  While spontaneous and serendipitous activities are still encouraged the best leadership arises from well-developed systems.  The idea of leadership as a system of functions varies from traditional approaches to the topic.  However, this idea still incorporates the fundamental concept that successful leaders not only adapt their activities and responses to a variety of situations but also intimately understand the aim of the organization and disseminate that aim to the constituents.5  The importance of understanding and disseminating the aim or mission to all levels of an organization was expressed by Donald Peterson, CEO of Ford Motor Company, in February of 1982 when he addressed the senior executives with these words:

“…As I was thinking about this meeting, it struck me strongly that you are the ones who are going to decide whether we are really successful in making a dramatic change in how we do business.”

“…I seriously suggest that you give that some heartfelt thought as to whether you really understand what we are talking about.  I had the experience in January at our Management Review that most people in the room thought I was talking about something so elementary that we, of course, already do it in the Ford Motor Company.  They could not understand why I was talking about it.  It left me with the sense that many of us still do not understand what we are really trying to change.  So I urge you to ask yourselves, do you really understand what it is we are trying to change….”6


In addition, Peterson’s words recall the key aspect of leadership as a system, which is that it is a highly integrated network of interdependent parts. 


V.                 Final Thoughts from the Constituents


The portrayal of leadership is incomplete without expressing the views of those that are or have been led by others.  Afterall, leadership is a reciprocal process requiring an exchange between those who lead and those who follow.  The constituents are clearly important and necessary for successful leadership, and those who aspire to lead must acknowledge the values and vision of the constituents.  In the early 1980s research by James Kouzes and Barry Posner attempted to learn about the values that constituents admire and respect in their superiors.  The top four characteristics held by admired leaders included honesty (88%), forward-looking (75%), inspiring (68%), and competent (63%).  Interestingly, with repeated submission of the survey developed by Kouzes and Posner these characteristics are consistently highlighted.7  

      Constituents consistently selected honesty as the most important leadership characteristic.  Honesty was judged by the consistency between a leader’s words and behavior.  It was also apparent that leaders who were clear and confident in their own beliefs were also highly regarded.  Constituents were also concerned about leaders who lacked direction or a clear vision of the future.  Even the most highly developed constituents wanted to feel confident about the organization’s aim for the future.  Effective leaders inspire confidence in the validity of the aim and their personal commitment to pursuing the aim generates enthusiasm and pride in their constituents.  Finally, competent leaders are capable of challenging, inspiring, enabling, modeling, and encouraging others, and performance is dependent upon it.7



VI.              Conclusion

Leadership exists on many levels and throughout all aspects of society.  The common purpose that motivates leaders is the overall accomplishment of the organization or the system.  After recognizing leadership as a system it becomes clear that an understanding of the relationship between leaders and their constituents is essential.  In addition, developing and maintaining successful organizations requires leaders to understand the culture of the organization, to adapt to the challenges of the environment, and to respect the constituents that make up the organization. 

The responsibility of leadership extends from the executive offices and beyond the local levels to the public.  The possibilities and limitations of leaders must be understood so that the public can intelligently strengthen and support “good” leadership.  Many have described the skills and tasks necessary to be a leader and it is likely that these skills are widely distributed throughout society.  An important question is how can this reservoir be tapped.






1.  Goleman D.  Leadership That Gets Results.  Harvard Business Review; March-April 2000: 78-90.


2. Stogdill RM and Coons AE, eds.  Leader Behavior: Its Description and Measurement.  Research Monograph No. 88 (Columbus, Ohio: Bureau of Business Research, The Ohio State University, 1957).


3. Hersey P and Blanchard K.  Management of Organizational Behavior: Utilizing Human Resources, 4th edition (Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall Inc., 1982).


4.  Gardner JW. On Leadership (New York, N.Y.: The Free Press, 1990), p. 1-22.


5.      Scholtes PR.  The Leader’s Handbook: Making Things Happen, Getting Things Done (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1998), chapters 2 & 10.


6.      Scherkenback WW.  The Deming Route to Quality and Productivity (Washington, D.C.: Ceepress Books, 1986)


7.      Kouzes JM and Posner BZ.  The Leadership Challenge (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass Publishers, 1995), chapters 1-3.