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Leadership: What is it?

Updated: Feb 15, 2022

Leadership is not about what you say or do, it’s about the relationships you build with your team

What is Leadership?

Do you ever wonder why leadership is such a hard concept to grasp? Why it is lacking in many organizations today? Where the confusion lies? Hopefully I can help to unravel that a bit for you here.

Many believe that leadership is about having certain traits or behaviours, which was widely accepted many years ago, but in today’s organizations, leadership is more about relationships. It is interesting to look at the evolution of leadership to understand better what is being practiced today in successful organizations.

The Evolution of Leadership

Many of the original thought leaders have identified different stages or eras of leadership theories and their evolution. Daft and Lane have provided a visual quadrant that helps us explore one of the proposed breakdowns of the different eras.

Figure 1. The four eras of leadership evolution showing the transitions from individual leadership focus to organizational leadership focus and back as well as how leadership has been considered in both stable and turbulent times.

Era 1: Great Person Leadership

During this initial theoretical stage or era, leaders were predominantly male, white, and born with the traits and abilities that gave them power and influence to lead on their own. Era 1 included the Great Man theories and Trait theories and was widely accepted in the mid 1800’s.

During the time of the great man theory, people studied and contemplated the qualities of those great men. In studying the great man theory, focus turned towards determining leadership traits. The evolution of leadership theory suggested that great leaders possessed certain traits, all of which could be learned therefore leaders were not ‘born’ but created.

Its important to keep in mind that not everyone wants to learn to be a great leader and not everyone who practices leadership can master it. Leadership is an ongoing cyclical journey of learning, growing, excelling, failing, and then returning to learning.

Era 2: Rational Management

Era two began when organizations grew to a point of being too large for one single leader. This was practiced in the 1960’s and 1970’s. When traits could not be accurately identified, researchers started pondering instead what great leaders do. This was referred to as Behaviour theory. At this point there was a focus on the importance of the leader as self and that one needs to focus on improving oneself to become a great leader. The next theory is one that looks more at what is happening rather than who is leading.

Contingency theory, which was also part of the Rational Management era, and sometimes referred to as situational theory, is a theory that suggests leadership is dependent on an analysis of the situation at hand. This theory suggests leaders can adapt their behaviours and styles to suit a situation to improve the effectiveness of their leadership. The next era focusses on the interactions between leaders and followers.

Era 3: Team or Lateral Leadership

The influence theory appears to be the last to surmise that leadership is a relationship between the leader and their follower(s) and is the only theory in era three. This theory was practiced in the early 1980’s. In this era, life became chaotic and new approaches were sought to help organizations grow and prosper. Influence theory resorts slightly back to the traits theory and suggests that leaders can influence others to follow them.

The influence theory suggests that the leader creates a vision along with the culture and values to lead the followers towards that vision. Building upon both the traits and behaviour theories, leaders had to possess certain qualities and act a certain way to create the influence desired to have others willingly follow them. The last Era we will explore contains the most current and modern theories presently practiced, and perhaps the most complex, as it deals with how people interact with others.

Era 4: Agile Leadership

Stepping into era four is where we find the Relational theories and is presently the area of focused study in leadership today. This era practices a type of collaborative leadership where everyone works together to achieve their own goals and the overall goals of the organization. Relational theories focus on how people work and interact with each other. There no longer is a focus on what a leader does to a follower but rather the relationship that is formed between the two and that encourages everyone to participate.

In consideration of what needs to take place within relational theories, the emphasis is on the behaviours of the leader, where the leader’s job is to motivate, encourage, coach, and inspire others on the team to take part in the leadership responsibilities. Relational theories are where the act of leadership is between all involved, including both leaders and followers, and are not concerned with the organizational positions of the participants. It is where all are encouraged to contribute so that leadership is a joint effort.

More on Relational Theories

Because this is the modern-day leadership practice I would like to explore with and for you a few specific Relational theories, specifically shared leadership and inclusive leadership.

Shared leadership

There is definite value in everyone contributing within a shared leadership role, making it possible to achieve something greater. By reducing hierarchical influence and sharing the leadership role, the way we communication and work together, building a stronger team could lead to a much better experience. Because this comes from one of my favorite humans, I must include this quote… Harris and Agger-Gupta advocated that “the role of the leader is to influence and listen deeply, to engage others in creating a shared vision, and to harness the hearts and minds of the people in an organization in forging new directions”. There are proven benefits to shared leadership as a foundation; however, to kick it up a notch, one could also adopt some concepts that are part of an inclusive leadership style.

Inclusive leadership

One of the more recent relational theories of leadership practiced today is inclusive leadership. Inclusive leadership is summarized as what many can accomplish by working together where everyone is treated equally no matter where they fit in the organization.

Inclusive leadership considers helping and involving others. It is where leaders empower their direct reports to collaborate to find success as a team. People feel included when they have a sense of uniqueness and a sense of belonging. They feel they have something valuable to contribute and that they are an important part of the team.

Inclusive leadership is also about having a connection to others where the leader is more focused on the needs of others than on their own, being more of a servant leadership style. Building the concept of team and inclusion with employees contributes to that sense of uniqueness and belongingness as a part of the process. When leaders include stakeholders at the table or in the game, it will lead to improved outcomes and results. It is likely the successes would increase through inclusion, building buy-in and strengthening a cohesive voice.


Even though there are obvious qualities and traits that may help individual be better leaders, the more important thing to consider is the relationships we build with each other. When employee feel valued and part of the team, such as in an inclusive leadership role, they are more likely to remain part of that team longer term. When everyone is sitting at the table, creating the vision for a successful future of the organization, brilliant ideas are certain to arise. We all have something to contribute that will enhance the level of success of the organization.

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