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What is good leadership?

By Dr Dominik Heil

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When it comes to leadership practice, developing the capability for leadership starts by helping those with leadership responsibilities build a rich understanding of what leadership actually is. So what is leadership?

As obvious as that may sound, try typing ‘What is leadership?’ into Google and you’ll get 426,000,000 results. Clearly there are a lot of varying opinions on leadership.


What is good leadership? 

By the time people are in a senior managerial position, those in leadership roles in organisations will have been exposed to two or three models that represent what ‘good leadership’ is. They will have developed their own style of leadership, plus have one or two role models they aspire to emulate. So while it seems a rather simplistic starting point, for any leader wanting to enhance their capability it is a very good place to start. It may well be that leaders in a given context may require certain personality traits, ‘attributes’. But without a firm grip on the nature of the challenge of leadership, how can we know this for sure? 


Leaders need to understand the nature of the unique contextual challenges they face, but how?  

Leaders need to understand the nature of the unique contextual challenges they face before beginning to look at what characteristics, skills and abilities required to meet this challenge, because this is where so many critical details can be lost. We know from research that successful leaders do this more than less successful leaders. This habit of ‘scanning’ is a quality that many possess, but time and pressure often means it doesn’t happen. 

Only by facing up to how leadership practice will actually contribute to how well the organisation as a unique socially dynamic environment performs through the people within it, can a legitimate appreciation of the actual leadership challenge be made.


This pragmatic approach helps avoid the leadership cliché that some are ‘born to it’. This is not how most of the popular approaches that occupy the leadership development space have come about. Instead of this ‘natural born leaders’ approach, sound understanding of leadership practice must start with properly considering and appreciating the context, process and systems, the ‘entities’ that are being led; namely organisations themselves.


What is an Organisation?

Once we know the source of an organisation’s and its people’s performance we can start to meaningfully ascertain what it means to influence the sources of performance. Consequently, we also find out whether there are personality traits that are required in order to succeed in the endeavour. Like leadership this is often viewed as a ‘common sense’ subject, one that is ‘obvious’, but by the time someone is operating at a senior managerial role they will have acquired various notions on what an organisation is, does, behaves and so on. And as before, this is interwoven with their personal experience. So having a systematic way that clarifies these often competing views is perhaps where the real ‘common sense’ sits?

Disciplines such as psychology, complexity theory, systems thinking, neurobiology and even micro economics have provided the leadership development space with solutions that have worked within the subject matters of each discipline. However, these are often applied without thought and regardless of whether the subject matter is in any way similar to organisations and the people who work in them.

A well-grounded approach to leadership development must start with understanding how the organisations and the people working within them are able to perform in various circumstances, and then to explore how this ability of organisations and individuals within them can be further enabled and enhanced by those tasked to lead.


Organisations have more influence on us than we may like to admit

We are social creatures by nature; therefore an organisation has a profound effect on us. Being in an organisation changes us. It can alter our mood, dull or open up our thinking. It can alter our mannerisms, influence how we behave. It can shape how we relate to each other and, crucially it can also fundamentally influence the outlook we have on our future. Organisations are an altogether more powerful entity than we often realise.

The question about the very nature of an organisation is a philosophical question and within philosophy it falls into the domain of metaphysics and ontology. One might argue that organisational management is very practical and should not concern itself with philosophy much. But in fact taking a philosophical perspective is highly relevant. Challenging at first, once mastered it has powerful and direct implication for increasing effectiveness of everyday leadership practice.


The work of The Praxis Centre has been part of the School of Management for over 35 years, we are dedicated to leadership and management development by focusing on an individual's (or groups of individuals) personal development. Our focus has always been on the more advanced aspects of leadership development: what comes after the learning of general management and business function skills and knowledge fundamentals.

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