understand leadership (2023)

Read in Spanish
Read in Portuguese

Although the recent work of authors such as Abraham Zaleznik and Daniel Goleman has fundamentally changed the way we look at leadership, many of their themes have been explored in W.C.H. Prentice's 1961 article in which he dismissed the notion of leadership as the exercise of power and violence or the possession of exceptional analytical ability. Prentice defined leadership as "the achievement of a goal through the guidance of human assistants" and a successful leader as someone who can understand people's motivations and gain employee involvement in a way that connects individual needs and interests with group purpose. He called for democratic leadership that gives employees the opportunity to learn and grow - without creating anarchy. While his language is dated in some passages, Prentice's observations on how leaders can motivate employees to support the organization's goals are timeless and remarkably forward-thinking.

Attempts to analyze leadership tend to do soFailbecause the would-be analyst misunderstands his task. He doesn't usually study leadership at all. Instead, he studies popularity, power, showmanship, or wisdom in long-term planning. Some leaders have these things, but they are not the essence of leadership.

Leadership is the achievement of a goal through the guidance of human assistants. The man who successfully gets his human co-workers to achieve specific goals is a leader. A great leader is someone who can do this, day after day, year after year, under a wide variety of circumstances.

He must not possess or display power; Violence or the threat of harm must never be used in its dealings. He may not be popular; His followers must never do for him what he desires out of love or admiration. He may never be a colorful person; He must never use memorable means to dramatize his group's goals or draw attention to his leadership. As for the important question of goal setting, he may indeed be a man of little influence or even of little skill; as a leader he may only carry out the plans of others.

SeineuniqueAchievement is a human and social achievement that derives from his understanding of his employees and the relationship of their individual goals to the group goal he must achieve.

problems and illusions

It's not difficult to summarize in a few words what successful leaders do, what makes them effective. But teasing out the components that determine their success is much more difficult. The usual method is to give due recognition to the function of each employee so that he can foresee the satisfaction of one of his primary interests or motives in the conduct of the group company. Crude forms of leadership rely solely on single sources of gratification, such as monetary rewards or alleviating fears of various types of insecurity. The task is complied with because following directions earns a paycheck and deviating leads to unemployment.

Nobody can doubt that such forms of motivation have a limited effect. In a mechanical way they combine the self-interest of the worker with the interest of the employer or the group. But no one can doubt the weaknesses of such simple techniques. Humans are not machines with a single set of snaps. If their complex responses to love, prestige, independence, achievement, and group membership at work are not recognized, they emerge as automatons at best, bringing far less than their maximum efficiency to the task, and at worst as rebellious slaves, consciously or unconsciously are sabotaging the activities they are designed to promote.

It is ironic that our basic image of the "leader" is so often that of a military commander, for - at least for the most part - military organizations are the purest example of an unimaginative use of simple reward and punishment as a means of motivation. The invention of the term 'snafu' (situation normal, all spoiled) in World War II merely embodies what the literature on military life in Greece and Rome has amply documented to this day; namely, that in no other human endeavor is morality typically so low, or goldbricking and waste of evidence so much.

Two observations are relevant to the defense of the military:

(Video) Leadership Explained in 5 minutes by Simon Sinek

  1. The military undoubtedly has special problems. As males are killed and must be replaced, there are important reasons to treat them uniformly and mechanically.
  2. Clarity of duties and responsibilities, as maximized through the autocratic chain of command, is not only essential to warfare, but is undoubtedly important to most corporate corporations. In fact, any departure from an essentially military style of leadership is still viewed in some quarters as a form of anarchy.

We've all heard the cry, "someone has to be the boss," and I suppose no one would seriously disagree. But it's dangerous to confuse the chain of command or organizational chart with a way of getting things done. Rather, it is akin to a soccer game diagram showing a general plan and how each individual contributes to it.

The chart is not a guide. By itself, it doesn't affect how well the piece is executed one way or the other. But precisely this question of effective implementation is the problem of leadership. Rewards and threats can help each player accomplish their task, but in the long run, if success is to persist and morale is to survive, each player must not only fully understand their role and how it relates to group performance; he must toowillto run it. The problem for every leader is to awaken these desires and to find ways to channel existing desires into effective cooperation.

relationships with people

If the leader succeeds, it's because they've learned two fundamental lessons: men are complex and men are different. Humans respond not only to the traditional carrot and stick of the donkey driver, but also to ambition, patriotism, love of the good and beautiful, boredom, self-doubt, and many other dimensions and patterns of thinking and feeling that make them men. But the strength and importance of these interests are not the same for every employee, just as they cannot be satisfied in his or her job. For example:

  • A man may be primarily characterized by a deep religious need, but finds that fact quite irrelevant to his day-to-day work.
  • Another may find his greatest satisfaction in solving intellectual problems and never be brought to discover how his love of chess problems and math puzzles can be applied to his business.
  • Or still another needs a kind, admiring relationship that he lacks at home and is constantly frustrated that his boss does not recognize and take advantage of this need.

To the extent that the leader's circumstances and abilities allow him to respond to such individual patterns, he will be better able to generate a truly intrinsic interest in the work he has to do. And finally, an ideal organization should have workers at all levels reporting to someone whose sphere of influence is small enough to enable them to know those reporting to them as human beings.

Limits of the Golden Rule

Fortunately, the main motives of people living in the same culture are often very similar, and there are some general rules of motivation that actually work very well. The effectiveness of Dale Carnegie's famous recipes in hisHow to win friends and influence peopleis a good example. Its main principle is a variation on the Golden Rule: "Treat others as you would like to be treated yourself." Although limited and oversimplified, such a rule is a vast improvement over the primitive coercive or direct reward-for-desired-behavior approaches.

But it would be a grave mistake not to acknowledge that some of the world's most ineffective leaders come from the "treat others as you would be treated" school. We've all met altruistic people who genuinely wanted to meet the needs of those around them, but who as leaders (or maybe even as boyfriends or husbands) were utterly inept because it never occurred to them that others might have different tastes or different emotional needs have needs of their own. We all know the tireless worker who doesn't recognize the weariness or boredom of anyone else, the pub story addict who finds it amusing to please even the ladies with his favorite anecdotes, the public servant trying to win over friends and people influence by offering them tickets to lectures on missionary work in Africa, the miserly man who thinks everyone is after money, and so on.

The unique achievement of a great leader is a human and social achievement that stems from their understanding of their employees.

Leadership really does require more sensitivity and empathy than the saying "do what you would do" implies.

The one who guides us effectively must seem to understand our goals and purposes. He must seem able to please her; he must appear to understand the implications of his own actions; he must appear consistent and clear in his decisions. The word "seem" is important here. If we don't see the would-be leader as someone who has these qualities, it won't make any difference how capable they really are. We still won't follow him. On the other hand, if we have been deceived and he only seems to have these qualities, we will still follow him until we discover our error. In other words, it's the impression he makes at any given point in time that determines the impact he has on his followers.

pitfalls of perception

It can be just as difficult for followers to recognize their leader for who he really is as it is for him to fully understand them. Some of the worst difficulties in superior-subordinate relationships arise from a misperception of reality. So much of what we understand of the world around us is colored by the ideas and prejudices we begin with. My view of my employer or manager can be so shaped by expectations based on the behavior of other bosses that facts may not seem the same to him and me. Many leadership deficiencies can be traced to oversimplified misperceptions on the part of the employee, or the manager's failure to see the context or frame of reference within which his or her actions are understood by subordinates.

A few examples of psychological demonstrations from thework of S.E. ashwill illustrate this point:

(Video) 4 Tips to Improve Leadership Skills | Brian Tracy

  • When I describe a man as warm, intelligent, ambitious and thoughtful, you get a certain image of him. But if I describe another person as cold, ambitious, thoughtful and intelligent, you probably get an image of a very different kind of man. I just changed one word and the order of a few others. The kind of preparation an adjective provides for the following is enormously effective in determining what meaning is given to them. The term "thoughtful" can mean considerate of others, or perhaps rational when applied to a warm-hearted person about whom we have already adopted a positive orientation. But when applied to a cold man, the same term can mean brooding, arithmetic, planning. We must learn to recognize how a series of observations about a man can lead us to wrong conclusions about his other behavior.
  • Suppose I show two groups of observers a film of an exchange of views between an employer and his subordinate. The scene depicts disagreement, followed by anger and dismissal. The blame for the difficulty is distributed very differently between the two groups, with one showing earlier a scene of the worker at a happy, loving family breakfast, while the other group instead saw a breakfast table scene of the worker snarling at his family and storms out of the house. The controversy is understood quite differently by people who have had favorable or unfavorable insights into the character in question.

In business, an offer of more authority can be perceived by an employee as a dangerous distance from the security of assured, albeit gradual, promotion. A change in lines of authority or reporting, no matter how valuable it is in increasing efficiency, can be perceived as a personal challenge or an insult. The introduction of a labour-saving procedure can be perceived as a threat to one's own job. An invitation to discuss company policy can be perceived as an elaborate trap to trick someone into admitting heretical or disloyal views. A new perk can be seen as an excuse not to pay higher salaries. Etc.

An ideal organization should have employees at all levels who report to someone whose sphere of power is small enough to enable him to know those who report to him as human beings.

Too often the manager is completely unprepared for these interpretations, and they seem stupid, dishonest, perverted - or all three. But the successful leader will have been prepared for such reactions. He will have known that many of his workers were brought up to regard their employers as their natural enemies, and this habit has made it second nature for them to "behave like an employee" in this regard and always wary of kindness to others to be overtures from above.

The other side of the same situation is just as bad. The habit of acting like a boss can also be destructive. Much opposition to modern concepts of industrial relations, for example, comes from employers who feel that such ideas pose too great a threat to the long-established image of themselves as corporate autocrats. Their image hampers progress in industrial relations.

problems of a subordinate

But another and even more subtle factor can intervene between employer and employee - a factor recognized and addressed by successful industry leaders. That factor is the psychological difficulty of being a subordinate. It's not easy being a subordinate. Taking orders from others limits my independent decision and judgment; certain areas are set within which I do what he wants rather than what I wish. To accept such a role without friction or rebellion, I must find in it a reflection of a form of order that transcends my own personal situation (i.e., my age, class, rank, etc.), or perhaps find a balance of dependency and Independence actually meets my needs. These two possibilities lead to different practical consequences.

For one thing, it's harder to take orders from someone I don't consider superior. It is true that one of the saddest mistakes in practical leadership can be the manager who tries so hard to be one of the boys that he destroys any trace of awe his employees might have had for him, with the result that they begin to see him as a man like themselves and to wonder why they should take orders from him. An understanding leader will not let his staff think he considers them inferior, but he can be wise to maintain a kind of psychological distance that allows them to accept his authority without resentment.

When one of two people is in a superior position and must make final decisions, he can hardly avoid at least occasionally thwarting the goals of the subordinate. And frustration seems to lead to aggression. That is, thwarting breeds a natural tendency to fight back. It doesn't take much resistance to develop the habit of being ready to attack or defend yourself when faced with the boss.

The situation becomes even worse when the organization is such that open anger at the boss is unthinkable, because then the reaction to frustration is itself frustrated and a vicious circle begins. Mailboxes, grievance committees, departmental rivalries, and other similar devices can serve as lightning rods for the day-to-day animosity generated by the frustrations inherent in a subordinate. But in the long run, an effective leader will recognize the need to balance dependence with independence and constraints with autonomy, lest the inevitable psychological consequences of following orders become too great.

Better still, he will realize that many people fear total independence and need to feel the security of a system that limits their freedom. He will try to adjust the degree and type of freedom to the psychological needs of his subordinates. In general, this means providing a development program where the employee can be given a sense of where they are going within the organization and the effective leader will ensure that the view is realistic. An analogy may be helpful here:

Nothing is more destructive to morale in any group situation than the sham democracy found in some families. Parents who announce that children will be equally involved in all decisions quickly realize that they really cannot allow it, and when the program fails, the children are particularly slowed down. They find every inevitably frequent decision that is not made through voting or consultation arbitrary. They develop a strong sense of injustice and rebellion.

The successful leader knows that many workers were raised to see their employers as their natural enemies.

(Video) Defining What is Leadership and Who is a Leader? - Jacob Morgan

The same conditions apply in industry. There is no use pretending that certain decisions can be made by subordinates when in fact this is not possible. To make dependency tolerable, the lines between those decisions that are the superior's prerogative and those that can be made by or in consultation with the subordinate must be clearly drawn. Once these boundaries are drawn, it is important not to cross them more often than is absolutely necessary.

Ideally, the subordinate should have an area where they can freely operate without anyone looking over their shoulder. The superior should clarify the goals and perhaps suggest alternative ways to achieve them, but the subordinate should feel free to make the necessary decisions. This ideal may sound artificial to “old-school” autocrats, and if it does, even if they pay lip service to it, it will mean nothing. If the worker knows the boss likes plan A, he won't try plan B and will risk his job if it fails. Knowing that his job depends on every important decision, the only way to be safe is to always identify with his manager's views. But that makes him an automaton who can neither bring additional intelligence into the organization nor relieve his superiors of any decisions. He doesn't deserve the respect of anyone - not even the boss who helped him make him that way.

goals in development

No decision is worth the name if it's not about balancing risk and reward. If it were a sure thing, we wouldn't need a man to apply his judgment on it. Mistakes are inevitable. What we must expect of employees is that they learn from their mistakes, not that they never make them. It should be the leader's concern to observe the long-term growth of his men to see that as they learn, their successes increasingly outweigh their failures.

This concept of long-term growth is an essential part of continuous leadership. Everyone must be allowed to know that their role in the group is subject to development and that their development is limited only by their contributions. In particular, he must see the leader as the man most interested in his growth and most helpful to him. It is not enough to have interested HR officers or other staff who have no role in policy making. Despite all technical assistance, they can never replace the interests of the manager responsible.

dealing with tact

It is precisely at this point that misunderstandings are often encountered. No sensible person wants to make managers a substitute for fathers or psychiatrists or even human resources managers. His interest can and should be quite impersonal and unsentimental. He could tell the employee something like this:

"There's nothing personal about that. Everyone in your post would receive the same treatment. But as long as you work for me, I will make sure you have every opportunity to reach your ultimate potential. Your growth and satisfaction are part of my work. The faster you develop into a top employee for this company, the more I will like it. If you can see a better way to get your job done, do it this way; If something is holding you back, come and talk to me about it. If you're right, you'll get all the help I can give you and the credit you deserve.”

No real growth of an employee will take place without some education. The manager must take note of the successes and failures from time to time and ensure that the subordinate sees them and their consequences as he does. And it is at this point in the evaluation that an extremely difficult aspect of leadership emerges. How can criticism be impersonal and yet effective? How can a decision or method be criticized without making the employee feel personally belittled?

The importance of proper communication at this point is twofold. Not only can employee morale be damaged in the long run, but a very specific short-term effect is often the employee's failure to do what they should do to carry out the boss's alternative plan, since their failure could prove them right had had the first place. It is all too easy for a leader to create antagonism and defensiveness by dealing with an issue impersonally and forgetting the human emotions and motives involved.

Interestingly, such mistakes seem to be more prevalent in office settings than elsewhere, and we may wonder if we have not tended to isolate management behavior from behavior outside, say, at home. We do not assume that an order or a memorandum is the best means of making our desires at home acceptable. Most reasonably intelligent people learn early in life how to get others to cooperate. It is a given to create a personal and emotional environment that is right for the individual (e.g. wife, adult son, teenage daughter or child) and for the particular request that is to be made.

In the office we shed our everyday intuitive skills in dealing with people and put on the mask of an employer or manager.

(Video) Leadership Styles Explained (Kurt Lewin)

In addition, we probably know what aspects of a vacation plan, for example, need to be emphasized in order to make it attractive to the wife who wants to be waited on, the son who wants to fish, or the daughter who wants teenage companions. We'll also likely learn that one of them can be more easily persuaded if she's involved in the decision-making process, while another just wants a ready-made plan presented for approval or disregard. In fact, at home we probably react to such differences with very little thought.

But in the office, we shed our everyday intuitive skills in dealing with people and put on the mask of an employer or manager. We try to carry out our tasks with orders or directives addressed impersonally to those responsible for their execution, forgetting that an effective mobilization of human resources always requires the voluntary participation of everyone. Leadership is an interaction between people. It requires followers with special traits and special abilities, and a leader who knows how to use them.

Secrets of a Symphony Orchestra Conductor

The conductor of an orchestra can perhaps serve as a useful model for some of the important relationships that run through all leadership situations:

  1. Obvious in this context, but not always recognized, is the fact that the men must have the skills and training required for their role. Not all group failures are the boss's fault. Toscanini couldn't get great music from a high school band.
  2. A psychological setting must be created for the joint task. A conductor must establish his ground rules, signals, and taste so that the mechanics of beginning a rehearsal do not interfere with the musical purpose. Just as the conductor must make agreements about punctuality at rehearsals, talking or smoking between acts, new versus old music, and a dozen other things that might otherwise stand between him and his colleagues in their common goal, so must every office or factory Having rules or customs that are clear to understand and easy to follow.
  3. Most importantly, musicians must share satisfaction with their leader in producing music or music of a certain quality. If they don't individually achieve a sense of accomplishment or even fulfillment, his leadership has failed and he will not make great music. Some respected conductors were petty tyrants; others play poker with their musicians and sponsor their babies. These matters are essentially irrelevant. What the great conductor achieves is persuading every instrumentalist that he participates in the creation of a music that could only be made under such a conductor. Personal qualities and behaviors may be of secondary importance; they can serve as reminders, restoring and enhancing the vital image of a man of the highest musical aspirations. But no one can become a Toscanini by imitating his mannerisms.

“Low Pressure” guidance

These simple facts are often overlooked. In industry, we find countless leaders who only mimic the superficial qualities of a successful colleague or supervisor, without ever attempting to find ways to gain the active involvement of their own employees, by providing them with avenues for personal fulfillment in the common task point out

These leaders follow the approach that a certain type of salesperson takes; and I think it is significant that the finance, manufacturing and research staff of many companies view salespeople as a necessary evil and would be appalled at the thought of bringing what they consider to be a "sales approach" into management. Their reason may never be spelled out clearly, but it certainly has something to do with an air of trickery and manipulation that surrounds advertising, marketing, and sales. The sellers and advertisers I am referring to are often willing to seek out and exploit a weak spot in their customer's defenses and make a sale even when they suspect, or perhaps know, that the customer will regret the purchase for a long time to come.

Skillful use of social and psychological tricks can indeed lead to persuading others to do what you want, but they are unsuitable for a lasting human relationship. As any truly constructive seller knows, a deal should benefit both the buyer and the seller. And that means figuring out the customer's needs, making sure they understand them themselves, and providing them with a product that satisfies those needs. The salesman trained in such an approach should be the ultimate leader, transferring what he has used in sales to administrative dealings with people.

In contrast, the wily, eloquent manipulator who prides himself on outsmarting his customers, who expects to sell a man cigarettes by playing on his vanity, or sell cosmetics to a woman by playing on her ambition, might join in become an executive with the same disdain for his workers that he previously had for his clients. If he enjoys deceiving his employees by playing with their motives and interests, they will soon find that they are being played with, and the loyalty and trust that are an essential part of effective leadership will be destroyed.

. . .

Ultimately, a leader, like an orchestra leader, must use their skills and human insight - to gain individual satisfactions in the collective enterprise and to create fulfillment that keeps the subordinate in his role. No collection of cute tricks of enticement or show can do that for him.

Contrary to what we sometimes think, leadership is much more than "understanding people", "being nice to people" or "not pushing other people around". Sometimes it is assumed that democracy does not imply a division of authority or that everyone can be their own boss. That's nonsense, of course, especially in business life. But corporate governance can be democratic in the sense that it offers each worker the greatest opportunity for growth without creating anarchy.

In fact, the orderly arrangement of functions and the accurate perception of a leader's role in that arrangement must always precede the development of his abilities to the maximum. A leader's job is to ensure recognition of roles and functions within the group that allow each member to satisfy and fulfill an important motive or interest.

A version of this article appeared inJanuary 2004problem ofHarvard Business Review.


What is leadership to you best answer? ›

Sample answer: “Leadership is about collaboration and inspiring others to do their best work. I aim to be direct and collaborate with my team members by delegating tasks, leading by example, and making sure they know I care.”

What is your understanding of leadership? ›

In simple words, leadership is about taking risks and challenging the status quo. Leaders motivate others to achieve something new and better. Interestingly, leaders do what they do to pursue innovation, not as an obligation. They measure success by looking at the team's achievements and learning.

How do you answer a leadership question? ›

Tips for answering leadership interview questions
  1. Situation: Start by establishing the situation and sharing any important details.
  2. Task: Recount your specific task or responsibility.
  3. Action: Describe, step by step, what you did to address the task or responsibility.
  4. Result: End with the impact of your actions.
Aug 16, 2022

How do you answer tell us about your leadership skills? ›

How to answer “Describe your leadership experience”
  1. Think about your leadership experiences in the past. ...
  2. Showcase your ability to be an effective team member. ...
  3. Outline the steps you took to achieve your goal. ...
  4. Discuss how you delegated tasks. ...
  5. Quantify your accomplishments.
Jan 3, 2020

What makes a good leader? ›

Good leaders possess self-awareness, garner credibility, focus on relationship-building, have a bias for action, exhibit humility, empower others, stay authentic, present themselves as constant and consistent, become role models and are fully present.

What makes a good leader in the workplace? ›

What Makes an Effective Leader. Effective leaders have the ability to communicate well, motivate their team, handle and delegate responsibilities, listen to feedback, and have the flexibility to solve problems in an ever-changing workplace.


1. Great leadership starts with self-leadership | Lars Sudmann | TEDxUCLouvain
(TEDx Talks)
2. The Importance of Character in Leadership | Jordan Peterson
3. Pathways DL-2 | Understanding Your Leadership Style
(Toastmasters Club 3495 USA)
4. How To Be A Leader - The 7 Great Leadership Traits
5. Understanding Leadership
6. 7 LEADERSHIP Interview Questions & Top-Scoring ANSWERS! (PASS a Leadership & Management Interview!)
Top Articles
Latest Posts
Article information

Author: Manual Maggio

Last Updated: 01/20/2023

Views: 5683

Rating: 4.9 / 5 (69 voted)

Reviews: 84% of readers found this page helpful

Author information

Name: Manual Maggio

Birthday: 1998-01-20

Address: 359 Kelvin Stream, Lake Eldonview, MT 33517-1242

Phone: +577037762465

Job: Product Hospitality Supervisor

Hobby: Gardening, Web surfing, Video gaming, Amateur radio, Flag Football, Reading, Table tennis

Introduction: My name is Manual Maggio, I am a thankful, tender, adventurous, delightful, fantastic, proud, graceful person who loves writing and wants to share my knowledge and understanding with you.