CYC-Online 136 JUNE 2010
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Definitions and theories of leadership

Adrian Ward

Having begun by looking at the transition into leadership we will now back-track to look at what leaders actually do, and to consider some influential ideas about leadership. This will not be a comprehensive account, simply an introduction to some of the main issues and ideas which we will be using in the following chapters. Some of this may be familiar ground “we will look at ideas about “influence and motivation” and at change and vision, then examine the controversial idea of charismatic leadership and its risks, setting this in the context of other common ideas about leadership “style”. We will also look at the distinction made between “transactional” and “transformational” leadership.

Why are leaders necessary?
Several research papers (e.g. Sinclair and Gibbs 1998) and inspection reports indicate clearly that good leadership is essential for successful residential care, which make sense at an intuitive level “but why should it be so? What is it that good leaders do which makes such a critical difference?

We can perhaps answer this more easily by first thinking about what may happen in the absence of leadership “if a children's home had no identifiable leader. While there might be some novelty to this situation at first, we could expect that things would soon become disorganised and even chaotic. In this scenario everybody might have their own idea about how things should be done but they would not necessarily co-ordinate their efforts with each other; people who did not conform with group norms or established practice might be neither challenged nor brought to account, or if so this might happen in an informal or unauthorised way. People might flounder in an absence of a sense of direction and purpose in their work and they might experience extra stress because they were lacking in support and guidance; and finally people’s motivation and loyalty might weaken because they felt less personally tied-in to the organisation.

In such circumstances the organisation would not hold together effectively for long, although it might soon happen that unofficial leaders would emerge, which might be no solution at all, because their authority would not be sanctioned or controlled from above. The consequences for the young people might be serious, if they felt staff were not interested in them or engaged in helping them “and they might express their feelings through a variety of difficult and challenging behaviour. In a sense the implied challenge would be to the staff, as if the young people were saying to them: “Don’t forget about us, we’re important and we need looking after”.

What is perhaps most noticeable about the scenario just described is that it is of course all about the people involved and how they all affect each other, and the importance of the place being held together through good communication. This highlights the key role of leadership in working with people to get things done and the need to know when it is right to lead from the front, alongside and from behind. Learning from situational leadership we know that the skill of leadership involves knowing when to direct, coach, mentor and facilitate. Leadership is a relational skill.

In fact it is surprisingly common for teams to find themselves either without a leader or with some lack of clarity as to who the leader is or how much of a leader they are. Apart from those temporary situations in which a deputy or other senior person may find themselves “acting up” into the role, there are other times when a leader of one place is asked to stand in temporarily in another, or when a sub-team is expected to be “led” by a temporary leader. At another level we do sometimes find leaders who are virtually absent because they are either ineffective or they carry little or no authority “in politics the phrase used is: “in office but not in power”. This is a risky situation because of the dangers of the scenario described above.

What this discussion highlights is that a leaderless organisation is not viable for long, and that leaders therefore do play a critical role in holding organisations together, and especially holding people together- and this is just as true of children's homes as it is of banks, football teams and any other organisation. We will return later to this central theme of “holding”.

What do leaders do?
If we stay for a moment with the image of the leaderless organisation but we now imagine a new leader walking in and taking on the leadership role -what would we expect them to actually do? One metaphor which is sometimes used is of the leader “taking up the reins”, as if the organisation was a team of horses who are to be harnessed together to pull the organisation along, watched, guided and steered by the leader. This is not altogether unhelpful as an image, despite its obvious limitations, because it does suggest that leadership involves encouragement, knowing the terrain, one’s direction and choosing the best route, as well as harnessing the natural energies of the team. On the other hand this image does not really allow for the constant human interaction involved “the best team of horses simply follows orders as a group, whereas the most effective team of people will interact amongst themselves and with the leader and these interactions will contribute very significantly to the effectiveness of the whole team.

The language which is usually used for the leadership role focuses on tasks such as influencing, motivating and organising. Of these activities it is easiest to specify the “organising” tasks which leaders in children's homes actually carry out, including for example:

Essential though these planned meetings are, however, they only tell part of the story. On the one hand leaders also do a great deal of administrative work in support of the professional task, and some leaders become so preoccupied with this aspect of the work that they may neglect the professional task. On the other hand leaders also need to be visible and “present” in the unit, playing a significant role in the everyday life of the home, so that they remain “real” to the young people and staff at all levels, rather than being seen as a distant authority figure. Finally leaders also do a lot of work externally to the unit, meeting with senior managers and other professionals, often focusing on longer term policy and strategy. Some of this work will focus on future change and adaptation or reconsidering the task and direction of the unit.

In the light of all these possible areas of work, an essential requirement of leaders is the ability to assess and prioritise their responsibilities, ensuring that they keep a reasonable balance between the various elements. Some tasks can be delegated, though none of them can safely be dismissed from the leader’s mind. The leader therefore has to develop the capacity to keep all these areas of responsibility in mind and to continually review their own priorities and areas of focus.


It was a busy day in the adolescent unit: one of the young people had not gone to school because he was attending his case review in the unit that morning. He was feeling very tense and apprehensive about this meeting, and had had a troubled night keeping some of the other young people awake by shouting obscenities about his stepfather. There were heating engineers in the building servicing the central heating system and making a lot of noise. Meanwhile a senior staff meeting to debate the implementation of a new policy on physical restraint was interrupted with the news that the cook had been taken ill and the agency replacement would not arrive until late morning. The staff were unsettled and the leader was working out which way to turn....

This is not an untypical day in the fife of a residential unit, and even though there are no especially dramatic incidents, things are happening at many levels and it is not only the staff but also the leader who has to consider their priorities, making decisions as to what is most urgent, or most feasible. The leader’s distinctive role is to take a “reading” of the unfolding situation, including perhaps competing or conflicting ideas about where the priority should lie, and to help the team to decide and act on these priorities. It requires strategic and tactical thinking and action of the long, medium and short term with an appreciation that the “lifespace” for a leader is deeper, broader and longer and with a multiplicity of meanings surpassing those usually experienced in other roles.

Influencing and motivating
The activities of organising and prioritising are relatively easy to specify compared to the activities involved in influencing and motivating people. Here our focus changes from what leaders do to how they do it. Some of the influencing role will be achieved through the process of modelling “in which the leader’s effect is felt through an often-unspoken function of acting or speaking in a way which will be experienced by the staff as a model for their own practice.


In the example above, one of the staff became agitated about the crisis in the kitchen and proposed that the policy meeting should be abandoned so that the staff could assist in preparing lunch. The leader felt that this was an unnecessary disruption which would interfere with essential progress on the “restraint” issue, and found another solution to the missing cook by contacting a former employee who was willing to stand in at short notice to help out. In taking this course of action, the leader was thus modelling not only a spirit of adaptability and resourcefulness but also the importance of sticking to task rather than being blown off course by every new challenge.

The issues of influence and motivation are closely linked, and they are both affected by the degree and level at which the leader can engage with people. It is another truism that you won’t influence people unless you demonstrate that you are open to being influenced by them, and effective leaders are genuinely interested in hearing and using others” ideas, even if these are not always in full accord with their own. Another important ancient lesson in the power of influence comes from the parable of the sun and the wind competing to get the coat off a man's back. The wind howls and roars with rage, using some “heavy-end” influence techniques, but to no avail “the man just clings on to his coat all the more. Meanwhile the sun simply beams with such warmth that the man discovers his own motivation to adjust his experience “and willingly removes the coat. This may sound a simplistic approach, but it is surprising how often some real and genuine warmth and encouragement can motivate people “but also how some leaders never seem to think of trying this approach.

Change and vision
As we have already seen, an important component in leadership is the ability to envisage change and improvement, and to promote ways of achieving such change.

In organisations there is always change: for example, new people, new events, new policies, and in residential care organisations there will be new referrals and admissions, departures, unexpected events and crises, as well as the changes in the external world which may affect the type of new referral, or the way in which referrals will come or need to be handled. At another level there may be changes which may even affect the continued existence of the unit because of political or economic shifts which affect policy. Change is not only externally-driven, however: it also comes from within, and most leaders will want to introduce their own changes at various levels, perhaps to improve the service or develop some aspect of practice, or they may want to encourage colleagues to propose and initiate change.

Since all this change is likely to impact upon the team and its work in many ways, the role of the leader will be to promote the best outcome of change, which will often depend on anticipating and preparing for change, and adjusting its demands to co-ordinate with current practice and concerns. It will also involve supporting people through the process of change, which does not always run smoothly and which often requires individuals to adjust their practice and sometimes their dearly-held beliefs. Working with change involves focusing on the future without ignoring either current realities or lessons from the past.

This focus on the future is sometimes referred to in the leadership literature as “vision”, although this is not necessarily a helpful metaphor if it is taken to imply that it is only the leader who needs vision. When the literature talks about “vision” in leadership the impression is sometimes created that this vision will somehow emanate almost mystically from the leader and that in a blinding flash the veils of ignorance or confusion will be lifted from everyone’s eyes.

Nothing could be further from the truth. What “vision” really involves in this context is the ability to help other people see what needs doing and why, and to “envisage” the future. This involves casting the collective organisational mind forward to imagine how the organisation or unit needs to develop, or where it needs to change and adapt, while simultaneously working with others to check out that vision, as well as consulting other people for their vision and sometimes working together towards a workable compromise on whatever approach seems most likely to work. If it is only the leader who has the vision, everyone else may be blinded or prevented from seeing “somehow the leader needs to work with the team inside and out to share and develop the vision.


In a long-stay unit for adolescents, a proposal was put forward from “head office” to increase the occupancy by two beds, which would involve considerable building work and an increase in staffing levels. At first this proposal met with resistance from both staff and the existing residents, who felt that the disruption involved would be destructive of what had come to feel like a safe and sheltered environment. The leader initially worked with both groups separately, staff and residents, feeling that the anxieties of the two groups were becoming conflated and almost “feeding off each other”. As each group began to recognise the possibility of positive outcomes from the change, however, they started working more constructively towards the change which they could now envisage as positive.

Leaders therefore need to be confident and constructive with change, neither resisting it because it upsets a smooth operation nor always looking for further change in a restless question for “improvement”. It requires an appreciation of the need for both equilibrium and dynamism. Sometimes standing still is a priority in its own right, and one which requires considerable effort and determination.

Leadership style
Much has been written about leadership style, often with the implication that if a leader can just come up with the “right” style, all will be well. In fact this assumption is now largely discredited, mostly because of the huge range of variables in any organisation “the diverse personalities in any team, the broader social and organisational context in which the team is located, and so on. At the same time it is clear that at the far ends of the spectrum there are “wrong” styles “straight arrogance is never appropriate, and an extreme laisser-faire approach rapidly degenerates into the “ineffective leader” pattern we saw above.

Common sense also tells us that the same leader may not be equally effective in different settings “we only have to look at the variable fortunes of football managers to learn that lesson. The hearty or bombastic approach which worked in one team in a lower division may turn out to be completely ineffective with a team of arrogant superstars in a high division, and the “inspirational” leader who brings out the best in a close-knit successful team may struggle to conjure the same effect in a divided or depressed team which has been through a string of losses.

At the same time it is undeniable that personality or leadership style is one of the resources which a leader has to deploy. What effective leaders do is to match their style to the situation as it evolves: identifying, for example, when the team might benefit from an assertive or even confrontational approach and when it may be better to stand back a bit, tolerating difference and waiting for consensus or understanding to emerge. To work in this way requires genuine confidence and maturity, and depends upon the leader not only reading the situation well, but also knowing him- or herself well enough to be able to adjust their approach as necessary. This is similar to the idea of the “use of self” in professional practice, which involves knowing your strengths and weaknesses and being able to draw upon those aspects of your personality which match what the situation demands.

It is also important that the leader should not be allowed to develop an overpowerful self-belief, and that reality-checks should always be built in. Some of this can be achieved through a line-management system, but because that is all part of the same structure there is a risk that it will not be sufficiently objective; the leader should therefore also have regular consultation with an external person who can provide a foil and check against whatever delusions they may start to evolve. We will return to this theme in a later chapter.

In the context of leadership styles, the literature also talks of charisma in leadership, and this can be seen as both an essential and a highly risky element in the role. If by charisma we mean the personal qualities needed to inspire and encourage people, to lead by example and provide motivational leadership, then some element of it is essential, because without it the personal bonds between members and leaders will not be formed. A leader who cannot inspire or even really encourage people will not get far, as we have seen, and the quality of the work will remain dull and unresponsive. But if charisma tips over into arrogance, or into overweening self-belief and the arbitrary and self-justifying exercise of personal power, then of course it is dangerous (Hinshelwood). Some of the most problematic situations in residential settings, just as in other organisations, have stemmed from the effects of the unchecked power of a charismatic leader.

Charisma is an elusive concept to pin down, and turns out to have political and cultural “baggage”, as I learned during a consultancy visit to Russia in the early 1990s when we had great difficulty in finding an agreed translation of this term when discussing leadership styles in residential services. From our Western perspective our reference point for a charismatic political leader was Mikhail Gorbachev, whom we perceived from the West as highly charismatic in the sense of having charm, drive and the ability to inspire people, although it turned out that despite these qualities, which they viewed as superficial or hypocritical, he was despised by most ordinary Russians. Charismatic figures in UK politics are similar, adored by some and loathed by others, hugely forceful personalities who can exercise enormous power, even on those who oppose their views.

Charisma, then, is not a straightforward or “objective” quality “it may refer more to a behaviour pattern driven by personal motives than to a consciously adopted “leadership style”.


In one residential unit the leader, Gary, was omnipresent, frequently working unexpected extra hours on an evening shift and at weekends. He was undoubtedly gifted in communication with young people, and if there was trouble brewing in a group he was often able to cajole them instead into a game of snooker or simply a chat over coffee. However, this was not always helpful for the other staff, who sometimes felt by-passed by Gary and even deskilled as his easy-going charm did not resolve tensions so much as postpone them until after he had left the building (equally unpredictably), whereupon any submerged difficulties between the young people would re-surface, perhaps late in the evening when everyone was tired and the conflicts might be harder to resolve.

In the example above, Gary’s personal style risked undermining other team members and making their work in some respects harder. People found it hard to challenge Gary because his persona was so much built around being “the nice guy”, and “everybody’s friend”. It was only after a late-night incident in which a young person became violent to another staff member that people felt more able to challenge Gary’s leadership style. After some subsequent developmental work facilitated by an external trainer the dynamics shifted very positively. Gary now began to focus his efforts more on supporting and developing the staff instead of feeling he needed to work directly with the young people so much. It turned out (as is often the case) that underlying Gary’s apparent “charisma” was a greater anxiety than anyone realised about leading the team and developing their abilities. This had led him to prefer what felt like the “safer ground” of direct work with the young people, perhaps in the hope that his colleagues would pick up some of his undeniable ability in that field.

Transactional and transformational leadership
A more recent concept and one which has become quite influential is the distinction between two styles of leadership characterised as the transactional and the transformational. These two are sometimes pitted against each other, with the message that the latter is the preferred model, although it is clear that any organisation needs both. Transactional leadership is usually seen as more concerned with structures, targets and systems “indeed Lawler (2006) equates it with the more traditional concerns of “management” compared with the more person-focused concerns of transformational leadership.

Transformational leadership, originating in the works of US writers James Burns and later Bernard Bass emphasizes the moral element of leadership by moving beyond simply getting people to do what you want them to do in the way you want them to do it, and transcending everyday needs and expectations by aiming at higher or deeper goals. It’s quite close to what used to be called the “vision thing”, and it does draw attention to the leadership role of inspiring people to think and plan beyond the immediate and the everyday, and to the techniques of personal influence and motivation often based on consciously acquired aspects of “leadership style”.

While there is clearly a lot to be said for the motivational and inspirational elements of leadership which the transformational model promotes, on further reflection we may find that similar hazards may attend the transformational leader that we saw in the case of charismatic leadership. These might include excessive self-importance and self-belief of the leader and the building of a personal empire in which staff are (perhaps unwittingly) encouraged to become overly dependent on the personal approach of the leader.

In the case of charismatic or transformational leadership, then, what is needed is a vital extra element of self-monitoring and self-awareness, so that the leader will realise the risks as well as the benefits of any given leadership style. The leader therefore needs the ability to select appropriately from within a range of styles and approaches and to tailor them to the evolving situation.

Leadership and "followership"
We have already seen that the relationship-based approach used in this paper emphasises the interactional aspects of the role of leadership, and promotes an awareness on the part of leaders of the quality of communication which they can establish between themselves and their teams. Some of the literature focuses directly on what are seen as the complementary roles of leader and follower, and considers the implications for the latter, including discussions of what constitutes good “followership”. There is a certain value to this approach, which may cause us to re-examine the very term “leadership”: after all if someone is the “leader” then others must be the “led” or the “followers”.

There is perhaps also an implication that leaders need to evoke in their staff a willingness to be led, to trust enough to follow, and trust is certainly an essential ingredient. However, “followership” is a strange concept: I am not convinced that many of us would like to think of ourselves as being “good followers”, and it would not normally be taken as a complement to be said to be “good followership material” in the sense that being “good leadership material” definitely has a positive ring. We like to think of ourselves as autonomous adults, even though we will agree where necessary to work with the consensus and collaborate with others to achieve shared goals, usually under the leadership of a key individual.

That is what teamwork is all about, but “followership” may have connotations of unquestioning compliance with a leader’s wishes, which cannot be an appropriate model. Perhaps a more positive construction would be to think in terms of being thought a “good team player” and to have team membership skills (Collins and Bruce 1984).

In this chapter we have explored some of the basic ideas about leadership “why leaders are necessary, what they actually do, and how they do it. We have considered the question of leadership style and in particular we have debated the merits of “charismatic” and “transformational” leadership styles.

The main message from this chapter is that leadership is a complex and demanding task, which requires the ability to operate at many levels, as well as the ability to move between these levels as priorities shift and circumstances unfold, and to adjust one’s way of working accordingly. In the next chapter we will add to all this a discussion of what goes on beneath the surface of leadership, in the unconscious interactions between leaders and teams.

References and further reading

Sinclair, I. and Gibbs, I. (1998) Children's homes: a study in diversity. Chichester, Wiley.

Hicks, L., Gibbs, I., Weatherly, H. and Byford, S. (2007) Managing Children's Homes: Developing Effective Leadership in Small Organisations. London, Jessica Kingsley.

Collins, T. and Bruce, T. (1984) Staff Support and Staff Training. London, Tavistock.

Hinshelwood, R.D. (1990) What happens in groups. Psychoanalysis, the individual and the community. London, Free Association Books.

This feature: Chapter 2 from Ward, A. (2009). Leadership in Residential child Care. A paper commissioned by the National Centre for Excellence in Residential Child Care. The Tavistock and Portman NHS. NHS Foundation Trust.

The International Child and Youth Care Network

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