The notion of leadership traditionally refers to the personal qualities that enable an individual person – a leader – to exercise authority or influence over groups or individuals, even apart from the role formally exercised. To this model refers a tradition of thought that identifies as a primary characteristic of the holder of leadership the so-called charismatic personality. Already in the studies of M. Weber, however, charismatic leadership – an attribute and prerogative of a leader who is the beneficiary of a sacred investiture, as in the case of religious leaders or revolutionary political leaders – is typologically distinguished from traditional leadership, the expression of a recognized right and hereditarily transmitted (the monarch as dynastic leader), and from legal-rational leadership, which embodies a representative mandate, public and revocable, usually conferred by electoral consensus.

In short, the social sciences have progressively shifted their attention to leadership as a role exercised in a system of relationships, as well as connected to the expectations of followers and the motivations of the leader himself.

C. Wright Mills and H. Gerth, in their work Character and Social Structure (1953) were thus able to “isolate” three different types of leadership: the so-called routine leadership, based on the preservation of the duties and prerogatives of the office; the leadership of the innovator, who reinterprets and revolutionizes the role entrusted to him/her; the leadership of the precursor, meaning the one who anticipates a radically new idea or style of government without being able to exercise it personally, as in the case of the revolutionary intellectual who fails to come to power.

From these theoretical models – and even from experimental observations on group dynamics – some interesting interpretative models have been perfected, which tend to identify leadership with a power of influence capable of considerably conditioning the decisions of the members of a group. In order to qualify as such (legitimization of the role), however, leadership must be exercised with a certain continuity and effectiveness and must interpret the expectations of those who accept it.

Characteristics of leadership

Several common characteristics can be extracted from all definitions of leadership, namely:

  • Leadership is a process. The trait of a leader does not reside in his or her figure alone. A circle of influence is generated between the leader and his or her followers. Leadership is not a rigid, linear process. Understood according to this criterion, leadership is not confined only to individuals in positions of power (the formal leaders), but any individual can become a leader.
  • Leadership involves influence over others. The current characteristic is the exclusive power of leadership. It is a fundamental condition of leadership that there is influence (power) over a group of people. Recruitment of followers by the leader and trust in him by the leader are elements to be taken into account. Throughout human history there have been many leaders who have managed to capture the attention of entire populations, who have followed them blindly.
  • Leadership occurs in a group context. Leadership is a social phenomenon, as the process of leadership occurs within human groups. The purpose of the leader is to influence individuals to achieve the common goals of the group. The collective could be a consortium, a university, a military unit, a religious group, etc.
  • Leadership involves the achievement of goals or objectives. It is obvious that the consumption of shared goals or objectives is the meaning of leadership. Specific goals determine the relationship between the leader and his or her followers. The examples are obvious: a teacher will try to get his students to achieve learning goals; a political party will aim to win a majority of representatives at the congress; an army captain, to win the last battle, etc.

A very special characteristic of this concept is: leadership is positive. Imposition or harm of the group, with which a certain person exerts influence, is not considered leadership.

Leadership in sociology

The terms chief and leader, used in a broad sense, are synonymous; however, the two terms can be used with a narrower meaning, which considers the source of authority: in English, in fact, a distinction is made between leadership in the strict sense, in which a leader guides followers by virtue of the authority they have given him, and headship, in which a leader guides subordinates by virtue of the authority he has received from an external source, such as a higher authority.

In formal groups, the leader holds a predefined command position, usually identified by a formal designation (varying according to context: chief, director, manager or/and commander), which exists independently of the person to whom it is assigned from time to time. In complex organizations there can be more positions of this type constituting a hierarchy, being arranged on different levels, so that the one placed in a given level is in turn subject to the authority of one immediately higher level; the hierarchy is one of the elements that characterize the bureaucratic organizations according to the Weberian idealtype.

W.E. Halal elaborated in an important article a theory, which proposes to integrate the available knowledge on the subject of leadership, turning the attention towards the determination of the ways of behavior of the leader that prove most effective. It is quite recognized that a certain type of leadership can prove effective only with respect to a limited range of employees and for tasks with certain characteristics. These integrations lead to the formulation of an integrated theoretical scheme that defines five ideal models:

  • Autocracy: is considered as the most primitive form of leadership and is characterized by the use of authoritarian methods, such as force and tradition, to gain acquiescence. This form of leadership is thought to be appropriate only in situations characterized by “primitive” forms of technology, such as war, hunting and agriculture, which involve the pursuit of the basic means of life at a subsistence level.
  • Bureaucracy: is defined as a rational and utilitarian relationship between employees and boss, the tasks assigned are highly specialized, the manner in which they are to be carried out is completely determined by the superior in a rational manner, and the economic rewards are tied to performance to some degree. It is believed that this type of leadership is most effective in situations characterized by “routine” technologies, involving the performance of repetitive tasks, since in this case specialization is convenient, while tight control from above is necessary to ensure optimal performance.
  • Human Relations: emphasize the social aspect in the relationship between boss and employees; in this case, social rewards and sanctions are used to gain acquiescence. The boss uses authority in socially acceptable forms, encourages social interaction and affiliation. It is believed that “service” technologies, which involve providing personal services to assist others (think of the role of teachers and nurses), are most appropriate to this style of leadership, as human relationships encourage social interest and enhance social skills.
  • Participation: is defined as an egalitarian relationship in which employees are encouraged to share in the superior’s responsibility for solving problems. It is believed that this style of leadership is most effective in situations characterized by “influence” technology: that is, where the tasks of subordinates involve the exercise of “influence” or control over the behavior of others. Typical examples include the role of leaders, politicians and salespeople.
  • Autonomy: This is defined as a relationship in which no control is exercised over employees; the supervisor only provides information and administrative support to employees to help them perform their tasks. Employees are free to choose the tasks to be performed and how they are performed. It is believed that this type of leadership is most effective for “creative” tasks, involving the creation of complex systems or ideas, activities in which originality is required.

This integrated scheme, then, seems to represent an effective synthesis of the most important knowledge gained to date about leadership from a sociological perspective. As far as the historiographical method is concerned, on the other hand, the comparative approach to the biographies of individual figures, invested with a leadership role in a single historical phase, seems to prevail.

Leadership in social psychology

There are several definitions for the concept of leadership that can be qualified differently depending on the theoretical approach taken. However, all or almost all definitions gather the most general sense, namely that leadership is considered a social relationship that takes shape in a situation that requires choices of principle and behavior. Based on the different meanings that the different approaches attribute to the figure of the leader, and depending on the parameters considered by the researchers, there will be three categories of definitions, each of which focuses attention on certain elements that will influence the development of a definition.

The first category of definitions is characterized by a focus on the traits and abilities characteristic of leaders or the leadership function. This set of definitions examines only the intrinsic qualities of the leader, neglecting the context.

The second set of definitions focuses attention on the control, drive, and direction of actions or attitudes that a subject succeeds in imprinting on other subjects or a group, with the more or less acquiescence of followers, without using coercion. With these definitions we do not recognize a special category of people who are leaders, nor that particular actions or qualities confer leadership. This is a set of definitions also referred to as functionalist.

The third category of definitions is devoted to the action of influence, whatever it may be, that brings about change that is useful in achieving the group’s goals. This third meaning appears to be evaluative: it seems to imply that self-centered leadership is not authentic leadership and that everything must or can in any case be reduced to a problem of influencing, and moreover to one way. In any case, this is a type of definition that we can describe as reductivist and behavioristically situationalist.

Bernard Bass in his handbook on leadership proposes 11 categories of meanings attributed to leadership over the last century:

  1. Leadership as the focus of group dynamics, the leader is seen by some authors as the protagonist, the point of polarization, the focal point of a group. The tendency found in these perspectives of study is to consider the concept of leadership closely linked to that of group structure and dynamics;
  2. leadership as personality and its effects: this definition is part of trait theory according to which one must look for the characteristics that make some people more capable than others in exercising leadership. Researchers seek a definition that describes more the characteristics that a leader must possess to be a leader, rather than an explanation of the term leadership;
  3. leadership as the art of inducing consensus. Leadership is defined as the ability to manipulate people so as to get the best out of them with minimal contrasts and maximum cooperation through face-to-face contact between leaders and subordinates; it is therefore seen as an exercise of unidirectional influence, the group and its members are put in the background and considered passive subjects;
  4. leadership as the exercise of influence: in this case, the use of the concept of influence marks a decisive step in the abstraction of the concept of leadership; most researchers working in the 1950s used related definitions. The concept of influence implies a reciprocal relationship between individuals, not necessarily characterized by domination, control or induction of consensus by the leader;
  5. leadership as behavior. this definition, characteristic of Organizational Behavior, emerged in the same period as the previous one; researchers sought to explain what were the acts and behaviors characteristic of the exercise of leadership, those of an individual oriented to group activities;
  6. leadership as a form of persuasion: is a type of definition that seeks to remove any implication to coercion, focusing instead on the relationship with followers. More recently, persuasive strategy has been referred to as one of the modes of leadership;
  7. leadership as a power relationship: to explain this type of statement, most researchers who have adopted it have used two reference subjects, A and B, simulating power relationships between them; if A induces B to implement behaviors to achieve a common goal, then A has exercised leadership over B;
  8. leadership as a tool to achieve the goal: this idea is common to many researchers who have included it in their definitions, but some more than others have centered theirs on achieving the goal. These researchers view leadership as the primary force for stimulating, motivating, and coordinating those moving toward a common goal;
  9. leadership as an emergent factor of interaction: what differentiates this statement from the previous ones is the causal link; in this one we note that leadership is considered an effect of the group’s action and no longer a forming element of it. Its importance lies in highlighting that leadership emerges from the process of interaction between individuals and would have no reason to exist without it;
  10. leadership as a role of differentiation: is part of the role theory according to which each individual interacting with other people or with a group plays a role, usually different, from other individuals. Several authors use definitions that see leadership as an attribute that differentiates members within a group;
  11. Leadership as the initiation of a structure, by this statement is meant that the leadership function is essential for the initiation of a structure and for its maintenance.
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