What Makes an Effective Leader? - Principles of Management

Leadership may be one of the most discussed management topics. Walk into any bookstore’s management section and you will see dozens of titles all claiming to explain the secrets of effective leadership. Effective leadership means the ability of a leader to get high performance from his or her subordinates. In the case of a CEO or general manager of a selfcontained product division, effective leadership should translate into sustained high performance for the entire company or division.

Literally thousands of academic studies have tried to discern the difference between effective and ineffective leadership. Despite this large body of work, there is a lack of consensus about what makes an effective leader. However, five different perspectives on leadership have emerged over the years, each of which teaches us something about the nature of effective leadership (see Figure below).

One perspective, the power–influence approach, attempts to explain leadership effectiveness in terms of the amount of power possessed by a leader, the type of power possessed, and how that power is used to influence others within the organization. Another perspective, called the trait or competency perspective, has tried to identify the traits and competencies of effective leaders.

A third approach, the behavior perspective, asserts that certain behaviors are related to leadership effectiveness. The contingency perspective argues that the appropriate behaviors for a leader to adopt depend on context, and that what works in some situations will not in others. Finally, the last two decades have seen the rise of work on what is called the transformational perspective on leadership.

The transformational perspective suggests that effective leaders “transform” organizations through their vision,communication, and ability to build commitment to that vision among employees. Gordon Bethune is an example of a transformational leader. He transformed Continental by articulating a different vision for the airline, relentlessly communicating that vision to all employees, rewarding employees for improving performance, and empowering them to take actions that were consistent with the vision.

Perspectives on Leadership

Perspectives on Leadership

These different perspectives are not mutually exclusive. For example, to be effective a transformational leader may require certain competencies, have to engage in certain behaviors, and need to accumulate and use power to achieve his or her transformational goals. Each perspective tells us something important about the nature of leadership. Together the five perspectives give us as complete a portrait as we have of what it takes to be an effective leader. In the remainder, we tour through the five perspectives to see what we can learn.


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