7 Essential Questions about Leadership

7 Essential Questions about Leadership

Leadership plays a decisive role in work performance and job satisfaction. But few managers have the necessary knowledge and skills to produce success in the workplace. I answer seven fundamental questions all managers need to ask themselves.
By Dr. Ben Tiggelaar

1. What is leadership?
Gandhi, Mandela, Martin Luther King… When it comes to leadership, many people immediately think of the ‘greats of this world’ who led political revolutions. Or of CEOs of big companies who lead thousands of employees.

But we should really be thinking of people like John (team leader at an insurance company), Susan (coordinator at a high school) and Marianne (head nurse). Why? Because research shows that the single biggest influence on the variance in work performance and job satisfaction of employees is their relationship with their manager.

The immediate supervisor is central to the academic research of leadership. “Leadership is about one individual influencing a group of others to accomplish common goals,” says Peter Northouse, author of one of the most widely read handbooks on the subject. And in most cases this ‘group of others’ consists of less than twenty people.

Some researchers even go as far as claiming that it starts even smaller, namely by leading yourself. Setting your own goals and making sure they get executed. If you look at it like this, then almost everyone is involved in leadership in some way or other.

2. Why is leadership so important?
Of all the factors in the work environment, the direct supervisor has the greatest impact on productivity, job satisfaction and employee engagement. This is supported, for instance, by surveys from Gallup, a global research company. The differences in your emotional engagement with your job and with the organization you work for are mainly dependent on the quality of the team leader. Emotional engagement in turn influences other important factors, such as productivity, customer satisfaction and profits.

That adds up to a huge amount of responsibility, and you have to ask yourself whether managers realize that everything they say or do – or neglect to say or do – has such a big impact on the people around them.

Inspecting the figures more closely doesn’t throw up a rosier picture. Because more often than not, the influence of the direct supervisor seems to be negative rather than positive. Most leaders, often unknowingly, contribute to a demotivating work environment. In global research conducted by the Hay Group, a staggering 55% of all employees indicated that their manager creates a demotivating work environment.


Management or Leadership?

Some management thinkers see a big difference between management and leadership. Management, they say, is about getting the daily work done. Leadership is about envisioning and inspiring people.

But research shows that in practice both aspects are important and should work together. Employees want to know what is expected of them with regard to their work and they want to be inspired as human beings. So making a sharp distinction between management and leadership isn’t effective.


3. What must leaders do? 
Research into leadership only really got under way after the 1940s. This was when the Ohio State University and University of Michigan started conducting large-scale studies into what leaders do and what their influence is. One of the most striking findings, also from later research: leadership is about two categories of behavior. Firstly, behavior that is based on work: the things that need to get done. The second behavior is based on people: the individual employees and their motivations. Leaders who display both – work- and people-based behavior – achieve the best results. But in everyday practice, many managers get no further than the work-based approach.

Sometimes they are quite simply too busy. But the truth of the matter is that not every manager has the skills required for the job. In many companies, people are appointed manager by way of promotion. As a reward for proven service. Not because they are really suitable to lead. If you want to be a leader, you should first work on your own proficiency in this area – for a lengthy period.

4. How does leading yourself work?
“Whoever wants to lead others should first learn how to lead himself,” said management author Peter Drucker. You need to want to become good at both work- and people-based leadership. You have to manage yourself daily (also both work- and people-based) in order to apply these skills. Despite the work pressure, interruptions and the whims of your superiors.

Applying people-based leadership to yourself means, amongst other things, that you are acutely aware of your personal goals. Why do you want to be a leader? And what is the outcome of performing your work well? For yourself, your team and the organization? Only then can you determine which of your daily tasks is really important, which can wait and which don’t have to be done at all.

Applying work-based leadership to yourself means, amongst other things, that you are in charge of your schedule (and not the other way around). A practical approach to this is to distinguish between urgent and important matters. Many managers work continually under pressure. Even though they may want to spend time on the important and non-urgent matters, like investing in relationships with employees, in practice their working day is crammed with urgent tasks and unexpected interruptions.

The art lies in the ability to clarify what’s really important and then to reserve time in your calendar (months ahead!) for work that’s important but not yet urgent. It’s also handy to reserve two daily blocks of time for the ‘to do’s’ that are important and urgent, such as unexpected interruptions like telephone calls, emails and colleagues that walk into your office. Unexpected interruptions that everyone experiences on a daily basis and which are actually not all that unexpected after all.

5. How does leading others work?
Leading others requires a ‘both – and’ approach rather than an ‘either – or’ approach. As a leader, you need to focus your attention on both the work that needs to be done and the people in your team.

Let’s start with work. Employee engagement depends, amongst other things, on the answers to simple questions like: do I know what is expected of me at work? Research shows that it’s important and motivating to set clear and practical goals. For example, setting deadlines, interim milestones in projects, and daily production targets. According to researchers Edwin Locke and Gary Latham, specialists in the field of goal setting, these goals should be ambitious and achievable. If people believe tasks are unrealistic, the chances are small that they will even start working on them.

And then people-based leadership. As a leader, you absolutely need to have attention for each individual member of your team. This means, for example: taking time to conduct personal conversations with them about work tasks, goals and progress. The single most important thing to remember here is that you primarily ask questions and listen. You will also need to identify the strengths of each team member, and put those strengths to use. And while you’re doing that, don’t forget to support employees in their personal and professional development.

6. How do you learn all this?
You learn to lead ‘on the job’, by doing it. But knowledge from outside helps. Even if only to assist you in determining the area you want to grow in as a leader, and to identify which potential approaches have proven effective for others.
A few steps…

1) Study leadership: read, listen, look around you and collect relevant knowledge.
2) Formulate personal goals: where do you stand now as a leader, and where do you want to go?
3) Think of concrete action points: what practical actions at work – for example planning personal conversations with employees – could help you develop your leadership?
4) Try, reflect and adapt: don’t just spend all your time trying new things, reserve time to evaluate afterwards.
5) Keep going: rate your own learning effort on a daily basis. Did you do your best today to become a better leader?

Does everyone have it in them to become a ‘real’ leader? Opinions differ. Innate characteristics play a role, according to researchers.

Leadership capabilities seem to be related to intelligence and how extrovert you are. But research in this area isn’t clear-cut. In any case, if you’re in a position of leadership today and you have the ambition to become a better leader, these steps can point you in the right direction.

7. What if I’m not the boss?
Leadership is often associated with having a management position. But think back to the definition we started out with: Leadership is about ‘influence’. This means that people who have no official power can also be leaders. In fact: in a group without formal structures, where no leaders have been appointed, leadership usually evolves naturally.

Additionally, every individual faces the challenge of personal leadership – formulating their own goals and translating those into actions. Not because everything is possible in life if you put your mind to it, but because as humans we have to make choices and subsequently live with their consequences.

When you look at it this way, we can all benefit from learning more about leadership.


Further Reading…
Some of the sources used for this article.
– Avolio, B.J. (2011). Full Range Leadership Development. Los Angeles: Sage Publications.
– Bass, B.M. (2008). The Bass handbook of leadership. Theory, Research & Managerial Applications (4th edition.). New York: The Free Press.
– Buckingham, M. & Coffman, C. (1999). First, break all the rules. New York: Simon & Schuster.
– Latham, G. (2009). Becoming the evidence based manager. Boston: Davies-Black.
– Northouse, P.G. (2013). Leadership (6th edition). Los Angeles: Sage Publications.