What Is Leadership?

Section A, Part 1

Leadership—What Is It?

The world can always use more leaders. You may already be a leader in your school, your church, or other community organization. However being a leader means more than winning an election or receiving a title; a leader directs others toward a common goal. In an effective group, any member can be the leader when he or she influences the others in order to help the group to reach its goals.

The way a leader leads is important. A good leader shows respect for others by listening when they talk, showing a sincere interest in what they are saying, and not “tuning out” others when he or she disagrees with what they are saying.

Leadership involves a set of skills that are learnable. Effective leaders are not born; they are made. By examining your own views on leadership, how you respond to the guidance of others, how people interact in groups, and how successful leaders work with people, you can be a more effective leader and your group can be more successful and productive.  

Team Leadership

Leading is not something that just the elected or designated leader does. By recognizing that leadership is a group function to which all members can contribute, you can help to develop a sense of teamwork. Sharing leadership, recognition, satisfaction, and the feeling of power that accompanies teamwork ensures that all the resources of the group will be used productively.  

Leadership happens when anyone in the group does or says something that moves the whole group further toward any of these three goals:  

  1. The accomplishment of the task
  2. The resolution of internal group problems
  3. The ability of the members to work together effectively as a group

The designated leader shares the responsibility of the leadership role with all members.  

A good leader:  

  • Involves everyone in building and maintaining a productive group. People tend to support what they themselves create.  
  • Views leadership as service, a way to help the group to develop an atmosphere of trust that helps the group accomplish its task.  
  • Helps the group to see how it can deal with internal conflicts that can disrupt meetings.  
  • Encourages the group members to accept conflict as a group problem and to discuss and work through it so that they can then return to their task.  

 In short, a good leader may serve as a:  

  • Facilitator  
  • Consultant 
  • Adviser
  • Teacher
  • Observer  
  • Participant  

Because he or she believes in the responsibility and ability of the group members to reach decisions, maintain and develop the group, and help each other learn how to be more effective participants, the leader actively encourages the involvement of all members.  

The effective leader sees the group as a group, not just as a collection of individuals, and thus can be aware of how morale or feelings of satisfaction can change within the group and affect its behavior.  

Styles of Leadership

Many leadership styles have been identified in government, organizations, and other institutions. Although styles of leadership vary from person to person and may be different for the same individual from one situation to another, three broad categories of leadership climates have been identified:  

  • Autocratic—the leader has complete authority and control  
  • Democratic—the entire group shares in decision making  
  • Laissez-faire—the leader exerts little influence or control 

The characteristics of each are extreme, and most leaders contain varying degrees of each. No one type is considered ideal; rather, each should be seen as being more appropriate to some situations and people than others. Depending on the amount of time available to meet, the knowledge plus skill of individuals and the relationships existing between group members, one style may be more effective than the others.  

Within these three categories of leadership style are many more narrowly defined styles. Review the characteristics of a few of them so that you will be familiar with them when you see them exhibited in yourself or others.  

The “telling” leader  

  • Identifies a problem, considers alternative solutions, chooses one of them, and then tells the group members what they are to do  
  • May or may not consider what the group members will think or feel about the decision, but does not let them participate directly in the decision making
  • May or may not use or imply coercion  
  • Assigns roles to members  
  • Relies primarily on his or her own judgment

The “persuading” leader  

  • Makes the decision without consulting the group, but instead of announcing the decision tries to persuade the group members to accept it  
  • Describes how the decision fits both the interests of the group and the interests of the individual members 

The “telling” and “persuading” styles of leadership are most effective and/or prevalent in large groups, in passive groups, in groups that meet infrequently, and/or at times when a quick decision or deadline must be met.  

The “consulting” leader  

  • Gives the group members a chance to influence the decision from the beginning  
  • Presents the problem and relevant background information, then asks for ideas on how to solve it  
  • May offer a tentative solution for the group’s reaction   
  • Encourages the group to increase the number of alternative actions to be taken and/or considered  
  • Selects the solution he or she regards as most promising  

The “consulting” style of leadership is most effective and/or prevalent in large groups, motivated groups, representative groups, and/or organized groups.  

The “joining” leader  

  • Participates in the group’s discussion as just another member, agreeing in advance to carry out whatever decision the group makes 
  • Encourages group decisions  
  • Works for group goals  
  • Allows for individual recognition  
  • Tends to guide, not rule  
  • Often submerges himself or herself in the group’s identity 

The “delegating” leader  

  • Defines a problem and the boundaries within which it must be solved, then turns it over to the group to work out a solution  
  • Sets few guidelines
  • Tends to have a secretarial function or resource person identity  
  • Often does not announce his or her own ideas 

The “joining” and “delegating” styles of leadership are most prevalent and/or effective in small groups, highly motivated groups, groups with a high tolerance for ambiguity (where members need little direction and are comfortable with a wide area of freedom), groups with a relatively strong need for independence, groups where the members understand and identify with the goals of the organization, groups where the members have the necessary knowledge and experience to deal with the problem, and/or groups where the members expect to share in decision making.  

To be an effective leader for your group, review these styles and think about how you can use them all in different situations. Which ones will help you to avoid some of the hazards of leadership?  


In the past it was commonly believed that there was only one correct style of leadership. Management researchers theorized that a leader was either task-oriented or relationship-oriented.  

Relationship-Oriented Behavior is focused on participants feeling good about the group process, often at the expense of a high-quality product.  

The leader:  

  • Listens to follower’s problems  
  • Praises the follower
  • Asks for suggestions or input
  • Encourages or reassures the follower
  • Communicates information about the overall operations
  • Discloses information about self  
  • Facilitates follower problem solving  

Task-Oriented Behavior is focused on goal achievement, often at the expense of interpersonal relationships.

The leader:  

  • Sets goals and objectives  
  • Plans and organizes work in advance  
  • Constantly communicates job priorities  
  • Clarifies roles
  • Sets timelines
  • Determines methods of evaluation  
  • Shows or tells the follower how to do specific task(s)  
  • Checks work  

Many lectures were based on the idea that the best leadership style for any situation was one that combined a high-task orientation with a high-relationship orientation. Still others claimed that the two styles were mutually exclusive—that a leader had to be one or the other.  

In recent years, we have come to understand that successful leaders are those people who can adapt their behavior to meet the special circumstances of each situation.  

At least two management experts, Paul Hersey and Ken Blanchard, feel that leadership styles fall into four basic categories:  

  • Directing—Telling leaders tend to be directive and concentrate on telling people what to do, when, and how. This leader has a plan in mind before the meeting starts and just informs the group of how things will be. Drill sergeants are good examples of directing leaders.  
  • Coaching—Selling leaders have a strong commitment to achieve goals and direct followers in the group toward this end. They are just as concerned about how the committee members are involved and want them to feel good about the work process and have good interpersonal relationships. Athletic coaches are often good examples.  
  • Supporting—These leaders take the approach that the relationship of the group is more important than any individual task. Supporting leaders run meetings at which all members have an opportunity to express their opinion, and decisions are reached by consensus.  
  • Delegating—A delegating leader will outline a project, encourage someone or a committee to handle it, and check on the progress on an infrequent basis. He or she usually lets the group members handle the project in their own way if it is clearly delegated and defined, and provides help if it is needed.  

Hersey and Blanchard also see the members of the group as falling into corresponding categories according to their ability to perform assigned tasks and their interest in doing them.  

  • Not Willing/Not Able—The members in this group don’t want to do the job, nor do they know how to do it. A student, who doesn’t enjoy sports, is clumsy, and who was pushed into the job won’t do a very good job at organizing a faculty versus students basketball game.  
  • Willing/Not Able—This group is enthusiastic about the task, but not really sure how to carry it out. An example would be a committee whose members, assigned to organize a student art show, think it’s a great idea but know nothing about art, have never taken any courses, and don’t have friends who are artists.  
  • Not Willing/Able—This group has all the knowledge and skill necessary to carry out the project, but isn’t interested in applying that knowledge. This might be a group that is bored by having done the same project too many times before.  
  • Willing/Able—The members of this group know how to do the job and are motivated to apply themselves to it. An example would be a group that worked with a special program for the disabled before, got a lot out of it, and is anxious to do it again.  

Perhaps you can already see how an effective leader could use one of these leadership styles to match the type of group or individual he or she is working with.  

“Directing” style uses high-task behavior and low-relationship behavior  

“Coaching” style uses high-task behavior and high-relationship behavior  

“Supporting” style uses low-task behavior and high-relationship behavior  

“Delegating” style uses low-task behavior and low-relationship behavior
With followers who have low willingness and low ability, a coaching style is called for. This arrangement would give these members the close supervision needed to keep them from abandoning or ruining the project, and would give them the specific direction or instruction needed to learn what to do.  

In a group with a lot of willingness but little ability, the directing style would be useful. The leader will encourage and reward members’ enthusiasm but will focus on giving specific instructions and following up to keep them from failing at their task.  

Group members who are unwilling but able need a supporting style. The leader will find a way to involve them in the planning and increase their interest in the project. Once they are part of the project they will be more willing to carry it out and will not need much, if any, instruction.  

Finally, the delegating leader gets best results with members who are willing and able. If they know how to do the task and are willing to do it, this leader will simply let them carry it out.  

When you learn to recognize the attitudes and abilities of your group—how willing and how able they are to really perform the task at hand—you can use the appropriate management style to get the best results for you and your group.  


(From Nebraska Association of Student Councils, Summer Workshop Curriculum Guide, NASC 1992, pp. 99-100.)  

No matter what leadership style a leader uses, delegating responsibility is an indispensable concept that must be grasped by any leader who expects to be successful. Delegation serves a number of purposes, which include:  

  • Distributing the workload 
  • Allowing more people to be actively involved 
  • Helping the organization to run smoothly  

Many leaders have difficulty delegating responsibility simply because they would prefer to do the job themselves and see that it is done “right.” While this method is often more expedient, it can also breed apathy among non-involved group members.  

Sometimes, leaders make the mistake of delegating only the menial work, while keeping the appealing tasks for themselves. Naturally, this can give members a feeling of being used, rather than being important. The following are some simple guidelines to determine when to delegate responsibility:  

  • When there is a lot of work to be done in a limited amount of time  
  • When you feel someone else has particular qualifications that would suit the task
  • When someone expresses interest in the task 
  • When you think a particular person might benefit from the responsibility  

 Don’t delegate:  

  • Things that are usually your specified responsibilities, except in emergencies
  • Something you yourself would not be willing to do (the menial work) 
  • A task to someone who may not possess the capabilities necessary to complete the job 
  • The leftovers 

 Methods for delegating:  

  • Ask for volunteers. Explain the task and see who is interested. 
  • Match talents. Don’t drop an idea when your request for volunteers is met with silence. Use your perceptions to select people for the task. Often, a person won’t volunteer because he or she lacks self-confidence. If the leader expresses confidence in a person by indicating she might be good for the task, she may feel good and take the responsibility.  
  • Don’t be afraid to assign tasks. Don’t assume silence means lack of interest. Take the initiative to suggest someone. The person always retains the option of saying no.  
  • Spread the good tasks around. Make sure that the same people don’t always get the same jobs.  

Guidelines for Delegating 
Once a leader delegates a task, his/her responsibility is not over. Follow these guidelines to ensure a successful outcome:  

  • Coordinate and keep communication open with the various people in the group.  
  • Set up definite expectations for work performance. Involve the person doing the work in setting these expectations.  
  • Make resources available to people doing various tasks.
  • Set up a system of priorities for getting things done.
  • Facilitate the accomplishment of getting those things done, but don’t take over.
  • Remember the importance of tact and concern.  
  • If things aren’t getting done, find out why and act on it.  

Obstacles to Delegation 
If you find that you seldom delegate, or resist the idea of delegation, you may be limiting yourself and the success of your organization by giving in to these obstacles:  

  • You are limited by the “I can do it better myself” fallacy. You feel the only way to finish work correctly is to do the work yourself.  
  • You do not know which tasks to delegate.  
  • You lack confidence in a volunteer’s ability to make proper decisions.  
  • You feel you will lose control of the work and not know what is happening in the group.
  • You are unwilling to take the risk of letting committee members make decisions and of being held accountable for the members’ decisions.  
  • You cannot delegate effectively because you do not understand your authority levels.  
  • You are particularly interested in the work and want to do it yourself because you get satisfaction from this personal involvement.  
  • You have an absence of sensitive controls that can warn you about impending difficulties.  

Why committee members will not accept delegation 

  • They find it is often easier to ask the president than to make a decision by themselves.  
  • They do not understand their own authority level; therefore, they are indecisive.  
  • They fear criticism for their mistakes.  
  • They lack resources and necessary information to do a job.  
  • They lack self-confidence.  
  • They feel the incentives are inadequate to motivate them.  

 Why delegation fails: a self-check  

  • The process is incomplete. Responsibilities for results have been distributed without granting sufficient authority or creating a relationship of accountability.  
  • The president refuses—consciously or unconsciously—to delegate. The obstacles to delegation are never overcome by the president or the committee member.  
  • Delegation is blocked by incomplete or ineffective communication. Many times the president goes through the process and activities associated with delegation without the volunteer realizing delegation was attempted. Thus, the president acts and proceeds as if delegation has occurred with the volunteer finding out when deadlines come near. This is the most difficult reason to identify and can be eliminated by clarifying the expectations.  

Hazards of Leadership

When things are going right and your group is accomplishing its goals, being a leader can be a rewarding and educational experience. But there can be drawbacks to being the designated leader in any group. You might:  

  • Come to love the power of “being in charge” and become a totally autocratic leader who misuses the position.  
  • Become carried away with your own importance and lose sight of the group’s goals. Egotism can overtake each of us from time to time.  
  • Fail to listen to the advice of others who have experience.  
  • Get into trouble by trying too hard; become involved in too many things, take on too much responsibility, and spread your abilities too thin. You will become frustrated by your lack of success at any individual task.  
  • Fail to organize. If you aren’t organized you will spend more time than necessary to accomplish less than your potential. Lack of organization can mean poor grades when you must always be trying to juggle your responsibilities.  
  • Be frustrated from disappointment in others in the group. Not all group members will respond to the same motivating techniques or work as hard as you may wish.  

All of this means that it is not enough to know which kind of leadership style you wish to develop. An effective leader must have command of a broad range of skills in order to bring the group to the successful completion of its goals. And that is what leadership training is all about.  

Tips for Successful Leadership

Here are seven helpful suggestions to make leadership more successful.  

  1. Match the task to the capabilities of the person. Everyone has particular interests and skills that are appropriate to certain activities. An artist might be most effective on the decorations committee where he or she can make use of individual talent, rather than on a planning committee.  
  2. Involve different people. It is easier to keep calling on people who have been helpful in the past or to always turn to your close friends, but everyone has something to contribute and part of a leader’s responsibility is to involve as many members of the group as possible.  
  3. Don’t dictate—delegate! Discuss the goals of the task, define the boundaries within which the person may operate, be willing to allow him or her to make decisions necessary to complete the task, and if specific steps must be followed, make sure you communicate them clearly and that they are understood and agreed upon.  
  4. Monitor progress. Although you may have delegated a task to someone else, as the leader you are ultimately responsible for its successful completion. Set up times and dates by which various aspects of a task need to be accomplished.  
  5. Consider alternative plans and persons. If a task is not being completed according to the established guidelines, re-evaluate the task, possibly delegate its responsibility to different group members, and/or provide help for the original person or committee.  
  6. Evaluate the task. A record of the way a task was accomplished is helpful not only to determine its success, but as a resource for those who may want to undertake a similar project. Don’t feel, however, that things must be done exactly as they have been in the past.  
  7. Express appreciation. Don’t forget to thank everyone who has contributed to making the project a success. Everyone needs encouragement to go on.  

Leadership Transitions

(From Nebraska Association of Student Councils, Summer Workshop Curriculum Guide, NASC 1992, pp. 104-105.) 

Leaders of organizations usually have finite terms of office. With new officers and members each year, student organizations face the danger of losing past experience and ideas, struggling with the same problems every year, and never learning from the past. Successful leadership transitions can help to diminish these concerns. The transition of leadership for your group may determine the effectiveness of the organization for years to come. Making the transition is the responsibility of the current leadership as well as the new officers. The passage of knowledge, experience, accomplishments, and goals for your group will help the current officers gain a sense of completing their jobs and bring closure to their experience, while at the same time giving the new officers valuable information, advice, and confidence for the future.  

Below is a list of items to transfer from your old officers to the new leadership. If you discover that your group can’t share some of the information because the items don’t exist, remember it’s never too late to start documenting!  

Seasoned, experienced officers know what sometimes works best and what doesn’t. You’ll want to share your knowledge of your organization’s structure, goals, and past accomplishments. Don’t let a year or more of learning evaporate during the transition. Rather, share some of the following with the new officers:  

  • Opinions about effective leadership qualities and skills  
  • Problems—with helpful ideas, procedures, and recommendations for solving them  
  • Reports containing traditions, ideas, completed projects, continuing projects, concerns, loose ends, ideas that came up but were never implemented, past fundraisers, etc.  

Then, work with the new officers to:  

  • Go through personal and organizational files together  
  • Acquaint new officers with the physical environment if you have an office  
  • Meet with your adviser together 
  • Introduce new officers to members of the school’s office staff and administration 

One of the best ways to prepare future officers is by maintaining excellent organizational records and files. Current officers should organize and update their organizational files before passing them on. Some of the important things to make sure your organization has in its files are:  

  • Constitution and bylaws (both past and current copies)  
  • Job descriptions  
  • Status reports on current and continuing projects  
  • Project planning information including tips for planning the event and steps that need to be taken
  • Evaluations of previous projects/programs
  • Meeting minutes and agendas  
  • Resource or contact list  
  • Members list  
  • Financial and budgetary records  
  • Historical records  
  • Timelines  
  • Information on working with your adviser(s)  
  • Information on working with your administration 

Properly organized files can be invaluable to future officers. The files can help them to know what needs to be done, how to do it, and when to do it. Organizational files can also serve as an historical record to help groups find out what projects or events were done in the past and how they turned out.  

When preserving organizational records and collecting historical information, keep in mind that it is better to give too much information than not enough. If just about every record for the organization is passed on, the future officers can sort through them and find the information they need. However, if little information is passed on, then officers might have a lot of unanswered questions and could be operating without the advantage of excellent resources. When preparing the records to pass on, don’t think everything that is old must be trash. Seek input from other members, officers, and advisers about what information may be useful to future officers. When in doubt, pass it on!  

Leadership transitions do not just refer to the outgoing and incoming president working together. All officers who are responsible for specific projects should work to ensure a smooth transition. Your group might seriously consider having an officer training session to help facilitate the transition. Leadership transitions can be exciting and enjoyable for an organization and its officers. However, if records, files, and information are not organized when passed on, leadership transitions can become very difficult. Keep those records and files organized to ensure future organizational successes.  

Ethical Leadership

Student leaders enjoy many benefits in their positions. They often receive accolades, admiration from peers and faculty, opportunities that others are not exposed to, and a personal sense of accomplishment. If a student leader rises to the challenges of office, he or she is frequently given more opportunities for responsibility. But with responsibility comes power, and the ability to manipulate the system for their own good.  

You may be tempted with many things as a leader. There will be many ways for you to put your own benefit above that of the group. As a leader, your actions affect others. If you are to lead effectively and hold the confidence of those you serve, you must hold to a high ethical code. The most important thing that is entrusted to you is people’s faith, and once lost it is difficult, if not impossible, to regain.  

An ethics code acts as a guidepost for the student leader and a measuring stick for the student body. It carries no penalties for violation other than accountability—to the student body and the leader’s own conscience. To these ends, the student leader subscribes to the following principles:  

  1. A student leader’s first allegiance is to the student body, but the leader is elected to serve the entire student community as well. This includes students, parents, teachers, administrators, alumni, and future students.  
  2. The student leadership position is not a position of glory and popularity, but a position of responsibility. A successful leader will sacrifice personal glory and recognition so that it may be shared equally with all of the followers.  
  3. When making decisions for the group, especially when the student leader disagrees with the student body on a particular subject, the student leader puts personal preference aside and makes a decision that is best for the organization.  
  4. A successful leader realizes that he or she also has a superior. No one is ever elected to an office or level that they never have someone to be accountable to. The student leader knows that whatever power he or she may possess was given to him or her by the members of the organization. If improperly used, this power can be swept away and given to someone else.  
  5. A student leader must operate in good faith and be an example of fair play, integrity, and dependability.  
  6. A student leader must genuinely listen to the needs, feedback, and suggestions from all the members of the organization, not just a select few.  
  7. A student leader must balance personal and official time commitments in a fair and responsible manner, and be prepared to make personal sacrifices when necessary  
  8. When faced with difficult decisions where there is no clear-cut “right” answer, the student leader must decide what is more right than wrong. What decision will be best for the organization? What decision is consistent with the values and principles for which the organization stands?  
  9. Written standards of conduct for members and officers should be developed. Members must never be disqualified without first being accorded a fair, public defense against any charges.  
  10. It is proper for a student leader to accept leadership-connected awards (such as a free trip to a conference) when they are offered, if to do so reasonably forms a part of the role of informing and representing the student body.  
  11.  Leadership is power. And in power lies the ability to use means for good or evil purposes. The easiest path to take is often the evil one. The choice to follow a good path offers a reward beyond its opposite—it builds character.  

Servant Leadership

Some student leaders run for office or volunteer to head committees because they want the recognition, or they think it will look good on a college or job application. Leadership involves much more than being the person in the group who gets all the glory and recognition. It is often a thankless job, involving countless hours of effort and attention. In short, leadership is a service to the group and should be performed in such a way as to benefit the organization and help achieve its goals. Successful leaders have a vision for the group and lead it in positive directions.  

Leadership is tough. But it is sorely needed, both in high school and the larger society into which students will emerge. There are many issues that should be addressed, and many problems that must be tackled. Having a vision of leadership that encompasses the idea of service is the first step. Student leaders who recognize that leadership is service can begin to approach these difficult areas and make a difference in their schools and communities.  

“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.” —Margaret Mead 

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