What is Leadership? An Overview

Written by
Changeboard Team

Published
19 Dec 2019

19 Dec 2019 • by Changeboard Team

Great leadership is the act of providing guidance, direction and management to both people and organisations. It incorporates multiple skills like strategy, emotional intelligence and critical thinking.

What is the role of great leaders today?

The role of a leader in modern business is a complicated one. From strategy, to managing your people, leading change innovation and managing projects, being an effective leader is a juggling act.

And it’s an important  one. Whether you’re managing a small team or a multinational business, effective leadership has a tangible effect on your employee’s productivity and engagement. According to recent government research, incompetence in company directors causes 56% of corporate failures, and a lack of leadership skills in middle management is estimated to cost the UK £19bn per year in lost working hours. Four in ten UK employees are unhappy with the current quality of their work leadership, with 15% reporting that they don’t have faith in the quality of their business’s leadership. So how can you make sure you’re getting it right?

Leadership capabilities - a list of vital leadership skills

Skills that are typically important for leaders to be effective in any management role include:

Leadership and people management

According to research by Gallup, 87% of the world’s employees are not engaged with their work. This could be attributed to a number of personal factors such as an employee being over-qualified or under-qualified for their role, but it’s far more likely that their disillusionment stems from the impact of leadership.

This could be something as simple as a poor relationship with their higher-ups, or as sensitive of a lack of diversity within their team. A myriad of factors go into effectively managing your team, more than we can probably cover off in one article, but here are some the underlying considerations for effective people management in today’s workplace:

  • Leadership and purpose: Being able to clearly articulate your business’s raison d’etre is the building block from which much of effective leadership hangs. According to one study, 58% of businesses with a clearly articulated purpose, achieved growth of over 10% in three years. Rather than seeing purpose as a marketing initiative, making sure that you are committed to want you to achieve is a key driver of success.
  • Leadership, people and culture: How would you define your culture? Or rather, does your culture match your purpose? According to research by Deloitte, 94% of executives and 88% of employees believe a distinct workplace culture is important to a business’ success. Purpose and culture will only become more important based on the impact of Generation Y on the workplace.
  • Leadership and professional development: According to research by LinkedIn, 93% of employees would stay at their organisation longer if they felt their employer was invested in their career development. Businesses are now constantly looking to re-skill employees in light of change, using effective training and L&D will allow to address your skill needs, while positively impacting your people.

See more on people management

Leadership and strategy

Peter Drucker famously once said that “culture eats strategy for breakfast”. And while that may be true, it doesn’t mean you can skip lunch.

Getting the most out of your team is the bedrock of success. It allows you to focus on other drivers of success for your business, including looking around and exploiting gaps in the market.

One of the key concerns for any business is how do you get short-term success, with a view to the future. This is becoming an increasingly difficult task considering the disruptive state of business today. Leaders must be able to both look to the future but not become married to their plans. In the words of Colin Price, an author on effective strategy and partner at Heidrick & Struggles, “business is agility, business is change.” 

See more on strategy and leadership

Leadership and innovation

If business is change, it stands to reason that leaders must be able to effectively lead periods of disruption. This can be difficult, as periods of change often bring with them anxieties. A 2016 study by KPMG estimated that 96% of organisations are going through a period of change, but only 47% managed to realise sustainable value from those efforts. An estimated 70% of such projects fail due to resistance from employees.

New technology has allowed a number of businesses to think about their proposition in new and exciting ways. Rather than it just be about reacting to how technology might change our day-to-day, leaders need to be able to think like entrepreneurs, and expose possible gaps in the market that periods of disruption can highlight.

See more on HR tech, automation and AI in HR

Thinking innovatively as a leader

As we’ve touched on earlier, effective innovation is also predicated on purpose.  Often, big businesses struggle to effectively relay this to their wider employee base.  Making sure everyone at every level is aware of ‘the why’ is essential.

For Avon CEO Jan Zijderveld, this was about reminding his employees about their real “boss” is. Since taking over the iconic makeup brand in 2018, Zijderveld has taken the business online, through a new ebrouchure, with a view to providing better customer service. He told Changeboard, “we’ve become obsessed with solving consumer and customer problems. One of the things I hope you would find at Avon is that there’s a new boss and that isn’t me.”

Once the purpose is aligned, your business will then need to move quickly. Effective innovations are based on teams that can accelerate, either to beat a rival to market, or to create a new product. This is often seen in smaller businesses, which due to a lack of red tape, work flexibly and iteratively, to bring a new idea to market in a short time frame.

Leadership and change management

Making sure the team comes along for the ride once you enter a period of transformation largely comes down to allowing members of the team to own parts of the project. Allowing line manager and teams to feel involved in the process, means that some of the anxiety change can bring is alleviated.

Leaders must also impress on their employees that in today’s climate, constant change is likely. This requires both leaders and employees to build up a level of resilience in order to accept the constant challenging of the status quo.

See more on innovation and change

Leadership and project management

Writing on the growth of the project economy, GlaxoSmithKline’s director of project management, Antonio Nieto-Rodrqiguez estimated that “by 2025, senior leaders will spend 60% of their time selecting and driving projects”. When you consider then, that currently only 28% of companies use project performance techniques, and only 2.5% of businesses successfully complete all of their projects, we don’t have much time to improve.

To effectively manage projects in today’s climate, businesses will need to adopt an agile mindset, quickly establishing the business case for the task and delivering it quickly. This will often mean hiring contingent workers or parachuting in managers within the business to take on new projects. This again, will need a clear articulation of the purpose behind the task. Making sure that you clearly understand the work that will need to be carried out, and delivering on every stage of the project is of the utmost importance.

See more on project management

Emotional intelligence in leadership

Emotional literacy is key to being an effective leader who can recognise and manage their emotions, as well as those of employees. The end result of emotional intelligence (also known as EQ) in leaders is better general mental health in the workplace, and less potential negative business impact from a toxic working environment. With the rise of AI (artificial intelligence) in HR, it's more important than ever that leaders are able to recognise and work with strengths, weaknesses and emotions.

The five top characteristics of emotional intelligence in leaders are empathy, social skills, self-awareness, self-regulation and motivation.

See more on emotional intelligence

Problem solving, critical thinking and decision making in leadership

One of your core strengths (or failings) as a leader is your decision making ability. Every organisation is beset with problems and challenges to overcome. Ideally, problems can be spotted and nipped in the bud before they become entrenched - whether they're reduced customer demand for an organisation's key product/service or a buildup of toxic hostility in the workplace. The difference between problem solving and decision making is that solving problems is a process, while making decisions is based on insights resulting from undertaking the problem solving process. Both problem solving and decision making are necessary skills for solid leadership that drives a business and its people forward.

Why is critical thinking important in leadership?

Critical thinking underpins all good decisions and neatly solved problems. It...

  • Helps leaders serve as connectors of disciplines
  • Makes it easier to balance learning and training
  • Plays an integral part in recruitment and hiring new talent
  • Adds value to collated metrics
  • Leads to informed, considered decisions – which is good for business.

The key to critical thinking as a leader is to be open to new ideas, avoid assumptions - including your own - and to explore multiple avenues to success. It's said that there's always a way... and there's always more than one way.

See more on critical thinking

See more on decision making

Leadership jobs

Leadership and HR - the management of people resources - go hand in hand. On our HR jobs board you can find hundreds of UK-based leadership jobs that will make the best uses of your experience and skills with a salary to match. Senior HR job vacancies include:

HR business partner jobs

HR director / head / VP jobs

HR manager jobs

The world of HR needs leaders like you.