What is Leadership?

Leadership is the ability to influence, supervise, and coordinate members of a group towards accomplishing a common goal, while also playing an active and proactive role in building team cohesion.
Chan, CKY (2021)

Leadership is important across many fields – in business and management, education, sports, just to name a few. While definitions of leadership vary across the perspectives of different scholars, disciplines, and contexts, it can be generally understood as the ability to influence, supervise, and coordinate members of a group towards accomplishing a common goal, while also playing an active and proactive role in building team cohesion (Chemers, 2014; Kouzes & Posner, 2003; Oyinlade, 2006; Pellegrino & Hilton, 2013).

As a competency, even those who are not in leading roles can develop and utilise their leadership capabilities. Leadership involves a number of other competencies like interpersonal skills, communication, and self-management, and further involves the ability to socially influence others (Chemers, 2014; Pellegrino & Hilton, 2013) in a non-coercive manner (Oyinlade, 2006), responsibility (Pellegrino & Hilton, 2013), and the ability to gather and use information, including information on social cues and contexts, to make judgements in order to solve problems (Mumford, Zaccaro, Harding, Jacobs, & Fleishman, 2000). Depending on the discipline, context, and outcomes, leadership can also incorporate other traits such as high moral standards (especially in the case of transformational leadership in businesses; Bono & Judge, 2004), adaptability and flexibility, and conflict management. In other words, leadership competency can include a wide range of skills and abilities, for example, Seemiller and Murray (2013) identifying up to a total of 61 competencies under 8 generic competency clusters in their study of learning outcomes from 522 accredited academic programmes in higher education.

 

Are You a Competent Leader?

The key here revolves around social influence and making social judgements – because leadership inherently involves people working together in a group, to be able to lead a team in a certain direction, to gain trust and respect from the members around you in order to do so, and to work together with others in a healthy and collaborative environment, all requires a degree of influence and a reasonable understanding of the people and dynamics of the team. This allows goals to be set for individuals and for the team as a whole, opportunities to motivate and supervise others, and a space for giving constructive feedback to team members. It is also important that an individual is open to receiving feedback themselves; it is hard to say that someone who stubbornly tries to lead a group in an ineffective manner is a strong leader. Rather, being able to take on constructive criticism and having the self-awareness to reflect on one’s own performance and effectiveness is important to be able to continue adapting to future situations and bettering oneself as a valuable team member and capable leader.

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Are You a Competent Leader?

 

Why is Leadership Competency Important?

As mentioned, leadership competency incorporates a number of other valuable competencies that are especially important for working effectively in teams. Whether or not a person is in the position of a leader or not, their leadership competency enables them to communicate their points and ideas across in an effective and assertive manner, and gives them the confidence to play an active role in the team’s work. It can further enable the individual to become more comfortable with taking initiatives in their work, or even in situations in daily life, or even take up the mantle at a moment’s notice should the situation call for an impromptu leader.

In today’s day and age, many educational institutions and employers have a great interest in graduates who demonstrate strong leadership, viewing them as the generation that will need to take on many of both known and unforeseen challenges of the future. In an increasingly complex and knowledge-based world, students will need to be self-reliant, well-versed in problem-solving and multidisciplinary collaboration, conflict resolution, among many other things – all of which fall under the scope of leadership competency (Greenwald, 2010).

 

How is Leadership Competency Developed?

Research has suggested that post-secondary education is a crucial time for students to develop their leadership (Hall, Forrester & Borsz, 2008), with many opportunities to engage in complex groups and seek authentic, impactful learning experiences. While students can learn about leadership from films with leadership themes (Comer, 2001), research projects on leadership and guest speakers who share their views on leadership (Jenkins, 2013), leadership competency cannot be developed through these didactic means alone because it requires practice (Abraham, 2011; Chan and Yeung, 2019). Group work, perhaps unsurprisingly, has been identified as the most preferred way for students to develop their leadership competency (Crebert, Bates, Bell, Patrick, & Cragnolini, 2004). In addition to in-class opportunities, there are also many extra-curricular activities and programmes that seek to nurture students’ leadership abilities, with many tending to also stress civic responsibility and societal values, as well as multicultural awareness (Cress, Astin, Zimmerman-Oster & Burkhardt, 2001). For example, previous studies (e.g. Yang, et al., 2016, Foli et al., 2014) have offered evidence on how service learning can be used to support students’ development of leadership competency. But how does development actually occur?

There are many different models for leadership development and learning, some of which are discipline-specific or were created with organisational leadership in mind. Below are two different perspectives of how leadership development takes place, one which is broader and more theoretical, and the other offering more practical and specific examples of how development is facilitated and supported.

According to Komives, Longerbeam, Owen, Mainella, and Osteen’s (2006) Leadership Identity Development (LID) model, there are six key stages in which a student develops, understands, and situates themselves in the construct of leadership – as something that can be learned and taught (Brungardt, 1996) – over the course of one's life. Throughout these stages, the student begins as a child who simply recognises the existence of leadership and leaders around them, but are largely uninvolved. As they grow older and begin to participate in more groups – at first, groups of interests before proceeding to more complex and organisational teams – they begin to develop their self-concept, self-confidence, and a variety of interpersonal skills that enables them to take on more responsibilities and explore their potentials. The student eventually learns that a leader cannot do everything on their own, and that there is great value in teamwork and interdependence within a group. They being to understand that leadership is not merely a position, but rather a process, and gain more confidence in forming a stronger sense of community within groups, rather than merely seeking out groups for a sense of community. In the final two stages, the student more fully recognises their own ability to work with others to accomplish tasks, understands their own position as a role model to others, and views leadership development as a lifelong process.

Meanwhile, Farr and Brazil (2009) discuss three components of leadership development – which they note is “fundamentally an individual endeavour” – based on a framework by the Center for Creative Leadership, which involves more practical elements and puts emphasis on support and mentorship. They promote assessment of one's own abilities as a form of becoming self-aware and identifying gaps between their own perceptions of their abilities and what others perceive of them, challenging learning opportunities to push students outside of their comfort zones and further hone their leadership capabilities, and support from teachers, supervisors, peers, and mentors to help the student make sense of their experiences and aid the self-reflection and growth process.

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Stages in Leadership Identity Development (LID) Model

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Summary of Farr and Brazil's (2009) Three Components of Leadership Development

In the following case study, Foster and Carboni (2009) demonstrate how leadership competency can be developed through a combination of students reflecting on their understanding of what leadership is (similar to exploring and transitioning between stages in the LID model), while also receiving feedback and aid from peers (exemplifying the support component discussed by Farr and Brazil, 2009).

Case Study

Cultivating Leadership through Student-centred Case Studies (Foster & Carboni, 2009)

To help students better understand what effective leadership entails, students participated in an exercise where they wrote down details of a situation where they hoped to achieve a certain outcome, but ultimately failed. They then analysed what was said in conversations about that situation, and by referencing leadership theories, learning models, and help from peers who questioned them, would then identify another approach and course of action that may be better suited in achieving the original outcome. Students were asked to implement this new approach within a specified time period, and write down the results in a journal.

 

How Should I Assess Leadership Competency?

Like with other competencies, it is difficult to identify assessment methods for leadership that are applicable across a variety of situations, especially as definitions, observable behaviours, and its overall generalisability differs from context to context (Mumford et al, 2000). Still, there are many inventories and questionnaires that seek to assess students’ leadership competency through self-report measures, such as the Roets Rating Scale for Leadership (Roets, 1997), the Youth Leadership Life Skills Development Survey (Seevers, Dormody & Clason, 1995), and the Student Leadership Competencies Inventory (Seemiller, 2016). However, triangulation with feedback from observers – such as teachers, peers, group members – are also important in establishing a more complete view of one’s degree of competency, though accurate and unbiased observations may be challenging to achieve.

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Examples of Assessment Approaches for Leadership Competency

Moreover, as leadership competency involves so many components, another way to assess leadership is to identify specific areas like problem-solving and social judgement abilities to target more directly through open-ended case study questions, as illustrated in the following example.

Case Study

Assessing Problem-solving, Social Judgement, and Leadership Knowledge through Case Scenarios Responses (Zaccaro, Mumford, Connelly, Marks, & Gilbert study, 2000)

Participants are presented with various scenarios presenting novel, ill-defined problems that were either structured (question prompts provided) and unstructured (no prompting questions). To assess problem-solving, the authors identified eight specific problem-solving domains (e.g., information encoding, idea evaluation, solution monitoring) to score participants on their responses to the scenarios. Participants had limited time to respond, and were judged based on how they demonstrated the application of problem-solving skills. Similarly, social judgement was assessed based on participants’ responses to another scenario, and how well they demonstrated understanding of the people, social systems, and social cues involved. Responses to this were scored based on seven domains of social judgement (e.g., self-reflection, self-objectivity, systems perception).

 

References

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Bono, J. E., & Judge, T. A. (2004). Personality and transformational and transactional leadership: a meta-analysis. Journal of Applied Psychology, 89(5), 901.

Chan, C.K.Y., & Yeung, N.C.J. (2019). Students’ ‘approach to develop’ in holistic competency: an adaption of the 3P model. Educational Psychology, 40(5), 622-642. DOI: 10.1080/01443410.2019.1648767

Chemers, M. (2014). An integrative theory of leadership. United Kingdom: Psychology Press.

Comer, D. R. (2001). Not just a Mickey Mouse exercise: Using Disney’s The Lion King to teach leadership. Journal of Management Education, 25(4), 430-436. https://doi.org/10.1177/105256290102500407

Crebert, G., Bates, M., Bell, B., Patrick, C. J., & Cragnolini, V. (2004). Developing generic skills at university, during work placement and in employment: graduates' perceptions. Higher Education Research & Development, 23(2), 147-165.

Cress, C. M., Astin, H. S., Zimmerman-Oster, K., & Burkhardt, J. C. (2001). Developmental outcomes of college students' involvement in leadership activities. Journal of College Student Development, 42(1), 15-27.

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Greenwald, R. (2010, Dec 5). Today's students need leadership training like never before. Retrieved from https://www.chronicle.com/article/Todays-Students-Need/125604

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Seemiller, C. (2016). Student leadership competencies inventory. Retrieved from http://www.studentleadershipcompetencies.com/tools/inventory

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