There is a wealth of literature and research on leadership. Many academics and psychologists have committed years to studying and understanding the practice. There have been countless leadership models or styles proposed (e.g. transformational, transactional, collaborative, consultative, servant, etc.), and lists of qualities or attributes of good leadership identified (e.g. honesty, humility, self-control, respect, empathy, inspiring, credible, moral courage, etc.). However, when it all boils down, good leadership is about just two things: vision and trust.
Many people (and leadership models for that matter) confuse leadership with management. A manager is responsible for directing and controlling the work and staff of an organization. Managers typically have their eyes on the bottom line, ensuring that things are functioning efficiently. Leadership on the other hand deals with the ‘top line’; what are the things that I want to accomplish—in other words—vision. Covey (1989) provides a good analogy:
Imagine a group of people cutting a path through the jungle with machetes. They’re the producers, the problem solvers. They’re cutting through the undergrowth, clearing it out. The managers are behind them, sharpening the machetes, writing policy and procedure manuals, holding muscle development programs, bringing in improved technologies and setting up work schedules. The leader is the one who climbs the tallest tree, surveys the entire situation, and yells, ‘this way’.
Don’t be confused, management is not leadership. The key difference is vision. A true leader has a vision, and that vision is compelling enough to entice people to follow. A good leader is someone that others choose to follow because they have been convinced that the vision is worth the effort. A compelling vision energizes people by providing them with an exciting picture of the future rather than providing them with rewards and punishments (Bartram & Casimir, 2007). It unites leaders and followers to pursue higher-level goals which are common to both (Sergiovanni, 2005), raising one another to higher-levels of motivation and morality (Burns, 1985).
Vision (vïzh’ən) n: an imagined idea or goal toward which one aspires
Visioning requires you to rise up out of the minutia to scan the horizon, to dream and to imagine what could be, to take a risk and trail blaze. Not everyone can vision; a true leader can. They are not held back by fear; they believe in themselves and what can be. They invest in the vision and keep pursuing it until it is achieved. Not until then is the job done.
However, vision is not enough. No one is a leader without someone to follow; and no one will follow a leader, particularly into the unknown, if they don’t trust him/her. Trust is the critical ingredient that goes hand in glove with vision. Without it leaders cannot expect people to work together to achieve the vision: and ultimately, without trust, the leader will lose credibility and fail (Sergiovanni, 2005; Reina & Reina, 2006).
Research has identified 10 key practices that good leaders consistently use to generate trust and compel followers towards a vision (Browning, 2014). They:
- admit mistakes;
- offer trust to staff members;
- actively listen;
- provide affirmation;
- make informed and consultative decisions;
- be visible around the organization;
- remain calm and level-headed;
- mentor and coach staff;
- care for staff members;
- keep confidences.
When a leader turns their attention to trust they begin to reflect on their own behaviour and how it impacts their relationship with the people who choose to follow them. When you examine the practices all the qualities of good leadership espoused in the plethora of literature, models and styles, is encompassed by the notion of trust. For example, humility, transparency, honesty, confidence, respect, courage, empathy, and above all, a genuine focus and commitment to the people who have chosen to go for the vision, rather than the selfish ambition of a bad leader. Good leadership boils down to just two things: vision and trust.
Bass, B. (1985). Leadership and performance beyond expectations. New York: Free Press.
Bartram, T., & Casimir, G. (2007). The relationship between leadership and follower in-role performance and satisfaction with the leader: The mediation effects of empowerment and trust in the leader. Leadership and Organization Development, 28(1), 4-19.
Browning, P. (2014). Why trust the head? International Journal of Leadership in Education. 16 January 2014.
Covey, S. (1989). Seven habits of highly effective people. New York: Simon and Schuster.
Reina, D., & Reina, M. (2006). Trust and betrayal in the workplace (2nd ed.). San Francisco: Berrett-Koehler.
Sergiovanni, T. (2005). Strengthening the Heartbeat. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.