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Functions of Effective Leadership

Updated on September 5, 2012

What is a leader?

For the purpose of clarity, the word “group” shall be used in this article to represent any collection of individuals gathered for a shared purpose.

From an early age in human development, people have realized it is easier for groups to achieve their objectives than persons acting alone. The results of group activities can be seen everywhere—in fact, it is virtually impossible to ignore the effects group efforts have had on society. Every house built, every car on the road, and even the roads themselves are all examples of group efforts. Individuals gather in cooperative organizations for the purpose of accomplishing common goals in all walks of life. Families, businesses, churches, athletic teams and even social clubs all meet to realize a shared purpose. All groups function differently—some might casually gather for a single meeting and others become powerful, highly structured organizations. Despite the widely diverse reasons to gather and organize, most groups have one thing in common: leadership.

Men and women from all walks of life study and train to become leaders.  From corporate executives to clergy, leadership courses are designed to offer practical training in becoming a leader.  While many courses are practical and worthwhile, too often coaching leadership is tied to a particular field or discipline--coaching situational leadership and coaching leadership are not interchangeable. 

What is a leader?

A leader goes first and leads by example. They have a goal—a “vision” that guides their actions and motivates them to fulfill their purpose. Skillful leaders are adept at articulating their vision and convincing others to support it. When this happens, groups are formed.

Anyone who accepts responsibility for leading a group must adopt a different point of view from those of its members. Members tend to see a group solely from the perspective of their role in it. Leaders must inherently view a group from a different perspective. They must look at the group as a whole.

Leadership is necessary. People have had so many bad experiences with leadership that many believe it an unnecessary burden that restricts rather than encourages progress. Leaders have been equated with authority, arrogance, dishonesty and self-righteousness to the extent that trust is sometimes lost simply by assuming a leadership role. It is often difficult to separate leadership from those who abuse authority, but the assumption that groups are able to successfully function without a leader is flawed. Even in groups where no one is recognized as being in charge, there are still signs of leadership. Leaders might be modest and quiet, but someone is still guiding the group and directing its efforts. If at least two people convene for the purpose of accomplishing something, someone must act in a leadership capacity. It can certainly be acceptable for more than one person to fulfill a leadership role, but one person must assume responsibility for thinking about the group as a whole.

Leadership is important and necessary

The products of group efforts are everywhere
The products of group efforts are everywhere
Leaders must have the ability to articulate a vision
Leaders must have the ability to articulate a vision
If two or more people meet to fulfill a shared purpose, someone must act as a leader
If two or more people meet to fulfill a shared purpose, someone must act as a leader
It may seem naïve to believe we can make a difference, but we can all become leaders
It may seem naïve to believe we can make a difference, but we can all become leaders
The ultimate goal of leadership must be to make the world a better place
The ultimate goal of leadership must be to make the world a better place

The functions of leadership

The responsibilities of leadership may vary in detail and emphasis from one group to another, but certain functions can be seen as important in any group, regardless of its size or purpose. These responsibilities will never be listed as essential functions on a job description, but they are vital components of success.

1. To offer a vision and direction. Why is a group’s founder so often its leader, as well? The reason lies in an individual’s ability to articulate a vision. Good leaders draw clarity from confusion and render the complex simple. This ability to see through a morass frequently suggests both a goal and a path toward its fulfillment. The capacity to verbalize this goal rallies others who share their beliefs to join them. (The leader will sometimes become the face and voice of a group and their cause through his/her ability to communicate.)

2. To make decisions in the absence of consensus. No leader can do all the thinking for a group. A wise leader solicits the thinking of as many people as is practical and listens to suggestions (consensus), but someone must take responsibility for problem-solving and reaching decisions. There must be someone authorized to say “the buck stops here. I will decide how we shall proceed.” To properly facilitate this, leadership should be clearly designated. Without designated leaders, difficult decisions will either not be made or they will not be supported.

3. To think about their group on several levels.

1.) They must consider the group as a whole. A group is a different entity than the individuals comprising it, and groups function with different rules than a single person. Leading a group includes the ability to manage a meeting, direct discussions and solicit the participation of all members. It also consists of keeping the “big picture” in view while simultaneously disassembling it into smaller, more manageable goals.

2.) They must consider the strengths and needs of the individuals that comprise their group. This allows leaders to delegate with wisdom (recognizing and fully utilizing a person’s strengths). The skilled leader can motivate the individual and evaluate their progress in achieving team goals. Clear thinking about individuals creates an environment conducive to success.

3.) They must consider both individuals and the group as a whole regarding where they began and where they are, relative to where they wish to be. It is not sufficient to think about a group in a static way. A visionary leader thinks six months, a year or five years into the future.

4. To develop new leaders. It is practical to see everyone as a potential leader and encourage their own ability to lead others. Leadership development is paramount to any group’s success. Coaching, counseling and delegation are all tools that both serve the group and support the development of the individual.

An enjoyment of leadership

The role and function of leadership in our society is often debated. Political parties are at odds about the extent to which leaders should be able to shape our lives. We frequently witness acts of oppression and a betrayal of trust from men and women placed in positions of authority. We sadly view past and current leaders with suspicion and hostility.

The functions of leadership mentioned in this article are not the sole responsibilities of a leader. They are only the broadest of brush strokes used in painting a picture of what genuine leadership can be. They are discussed because they represent a rational and evolving model of supportive guidance in a group structure—which is what true leadership is meant to be.

Regardless of whether one is labeled a president, manager, supervisor, coordinator, director, or “boss,” a leader must master the four qualities listed here. Pay, job description, the size of the group and its purpose are irrelevant to the overriding functions of a strong and purposeful leader. If everyone embraces leadership and strives to become a leader, the acts and functions of directing a group toward a common goal doesn’t need to be a stressful, burdensome task borne in hostility and isolation. It can be supportive, rewarding and even enjoyable.

This shift in focus is absolutely necessary to foster effective leadership in the 21st century. It cannot be about power and influence and perks. Leadership cannot embrace a “to have” mentality. Leaders must separate themselves and win the support of their allies through realizing that perks are irrelevant. They must eventually understand that to prioritize “to be” ahead of “to have” is what makes them lead successfully. It’s about the head of a neighborhood association wanting to realize change on a larger scale. It also includes elected officials seeking to make government work for everyone on a national and international level. It means wanting to make the world better and enjoying the process.

It’s about constant change—for the better.

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