Although leadership is recognized as being an important construct, it is not a concept that holds one single definition. What leadership actually is, or how to define it correctly is still regarded as a mystery by many. Leadership is something that may differ depending on the people involved, the situation at hand, and the goals being pursued, and is, therefore, open to subjective interpretation.

This essay seeks to explore what leadership means to me, drawing on personal experience of leadership as a social phenomenon, and discussing my views from the perspective of both a leader and follower. In order to make sense of my understanding of leadership, a critical review and commentary on leadership theory are included in the discussion.

Personal Experience of Leadership Within the Workplace

For the past five years I have had a part-time job at Marks and Spencer and thus come across many types of leaders and managers. The question often asked is whether a manager can automatically be assumed to also be a leader? Zalenznik (1977) was one of the first to contrast leadership and management as he argued that a leader uses creativity and intuition, whereas a manager solves problems using rationality and control.

In the workplace context I am a follower, and so from this perspective, I have seen what I would consider being good leadership and poor leadership styles. The socially constructed view sees leadership as being ”in the eye of the beholder” where it is the followers who have to agree on what constitutes leadership, and who they are prepared to follow. If the followers, and in my personal situation fellow employees, do not respect the leader, it is unlikely they will follow at all.

There is, therefore, no way for an individual to lead unless people are prepared to follow. There have been many instances at work when one particular manager has tried to lead change in the store, however, because she is not well respected, and in my opinion does not come across as being a natural leader, often her vision gets ignored until another manager provides instructions for staff about the same vision. 

Although I believe that the roles of managers and leaders are very different, in my job there are no visible leaders who are not managers in my store. The management team automatically take on the role of leadership, regardless of whether they are a good leader or not. As it is, therefore, management who attempt to provide the visions and plans for change, and employees like myself have no responsibility or say in the directions they wish to take.

My line manager presumes that her staff dislikes working and takes a negative view of human nature, believing we will avoid doing work if possible. This is evident, as she will often split employees up on the shop floor to prevent them from ”chatting”, and she constantly checks up on her staff to ensure they are doing what she has asked them to do. My manager believes that coercion and control are necessary to ensure that people work, and she never gives employees like myself any extra responsibilities. This style is also referred to as the autocratic style.

Although my manager is assumed to be the leader at work, I would argue that she is not a good leader, and there have been times when I have had better guidance from a fellow colleague. My manager has a coercive style according to Goleman’s six leadership styles. She expects immediate compliance, often provides negative and corrective feedback and controls tightly. This style does not motivate employees to see her visions or follow her lead, instead, it has often turned employees against her and people have refused to do certain tasks because of her leadership style.

Could Parents be considered to be Leaders?

When considering leaders and leadership, and what it means to me, I thought about what my first experience of leadership ever was. Although leadership in an organization is the key focus of the module and course, it cannot go ignored that my parents were the first influential leaders in my life. As managing directors of their own company, they have always played the role of managers, however, in our home their leadership style varied to that of in their workplace, and to the styles of each other. My parents have ”led me in the right direction”.

My parents and their styles have had a massive influence on my understanding of leadership and on my whole life! They have led me to where I am today. I have been extremely lucky to be able to experience their leadership styles whilst running their company, therefore within an organization. In this situation they both use different methods of leading than they do at home, thus supporting Hersey and Blanchard’s (1969) theory that leaders could adapt their styles to suit the situation. Situational or contingent leadership models recognize this and support the argument that what constitutes effective leadership will be influenced by the situational factors such as the people involved, the task to be carried out, and the organizational culture. It is, therefore, essential that leaders employ a variety of approaches across a range of situations.

From taking the time to consider what leadership means to me, it has only become more apparent about how complex the concept of leadership actually is. I believe ”leadership” is different to different people. Whom I consider being an effective leader, others may not, and what I consider to be traits that create a successful leader, others may not. Leadership to me is something that comes naturally, however in different situations, there need to be different forms of leadership in order for your followers to ”follow”. Although there have been many studies on leadership, and many theories produced, I agree with Burns’ statement that ‘leadership is one of the most observed and least understood phenomena on earth’. (Burns, 1978: 3)

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