Essence of Leadership

Erwin Rausch (President, Didactic Systems)

Journal of Management Development

ISSN: 0262-1711

Article publication date: 1 April 2000



Rausch, E. (2000), "Essence of Leadership", Journal of Management Development, Vol. 19 No. 3, pp. 245-248.



Emerald Group Publishing Limited

What is leadership and what is it all about? This question has puzzled scholars for decades and maybe even centuries since the Greeks first wrestled with it.

To quote a few outstanding voices:

Many scholars have wondered why we have not been able to get a conceptual handle on the word “leadership”.

Stogdill (1974) and later, Bass (1981) collected and analyzed some 4,725 studies of leadership that Bass listed on 189 pages of references in his handbook. Stogdill concluded that:

… the endless accumulation of empirical data has not produced an integrated understanding of “leadership” (p. vii).

Rost said, in 1991:

A new school of leadership is as elusive as it was in 1978, when Burns wrote … his monumental study of leadership.

Still more recently, another observer (Klenke, 1996, p. 55), resurrected this 1978 quote to express the current frustration with leadership studies:

… as a result, we have masses of findings that no one seems to be able to pull together – they simply float around in the literature, providing nothing from which one can push off to anywhere (McCall and Lombardo, 1978, p. xii).

Is the Kakabadse volume just another drop in this overflowing barrel? Not in my opinion. Essence of Leadership brings a different perspective. It is an interesting and highly informative book for several reasons:

  1. 1.

    (1) Even though the authors state that “The greatest paradox of all is that between leading and managing, pushing for great change and yet keeping the organization ticking over”, they clearly take the position, as they say in the beginning: “The fundamental argument put forward is that the capability to lead must be coupled with the practical skills that leaders need to have to manage their day‐to‐day affairs, which range from administration to working through and with people the tactical demands which require immediate response”. This may not seem like an earth‐shaking observation. Yet it contradicts the dichotomizing notion, widespread in the leadership literature today, that “leaders do the right things, while managers do things right”. The book thus brings a practical edge to “leadership theory”.  The Kakabadses refer often to management for leaders, with words such as “Best practice management for leaders is considered to involve:…” In that regard it strikes a responsive chord with me, because I believe that leadership in management of organizations (as distinct from leadership in art, science, and social issues) shares many skills, especially decision‐making skills, with management itself.

  2. 2.

    (2) Armed with the power of the insights gained from the Cranfield studies[1] the book takes the idea of “essence” to its fullest meaning, and discusses all the issues which contribute to an understanding of leadership, including:

  • the functions of transactional and transformational leadership;

  • today’s reality which is characterized by fragmentation;

  • diversity of stakeholders and also of agendas;

  • the discordant balance between accountabilities and responsibilities;

  • the significance of culture in shaping the leader’s role;

  • the impact of power and the role of politics;

  • the influence of traits and of determination (“born to be great” versus “I strove hard and achieved it alone”);

  • the influence of demographics, including that of gender and ethnicity.

Unfortunately, this book, like all good books, brings some disappointments, three in particular:

  1. 1.

    (1) Long after stating that “The philosophy adopted in this book is in line with the ‘I strove hard and achieved it alone’ school of thinking”, the authors, in a chapter on “Seven sides of great leaders”, list these items. Several of them seem to appropriately combine learned abilities with inherent ones (those that would support the view that “born to be great” is a valid viewpoint). Maybe the authors did not mean to be as firm in their philosophy as it may seem. The seven leadership sides offered are certainly appropriate:

  • Conviction to craft the future.

  • Strength to surface sentiments.

  • Wisdom for pathways through paradox.

  • Flair to engage through dialogue.

  • Discipline to communicate.

  • Passion for success.

  • Staying power.

  1. 1.

    Two examples why I believe that some of these may be combinations:

  • with respect to conviction to craft the future, to me there is something innate in confidence about one’s ability to affect the future – I do not think that it can come solely from experience and learning. It would seem to also support, at least in part, the “born to be great” philosophical position.

  • I agree that wisdom for pathways through paradox is mostly an “I strove hard” side of leadership – but then, it seems to raise the question about the role of IQ in wisdom.

  1. 1.

    (2) The book uses many complex diagrams whose meaning is not immediately apparent. Some even resisted considerable effort to determine just what their profound‐seeming message really was. Fortunately none appear to be needed for understanding of the respective points and the reader can just pass over those that seem hardly worth the effort to decipher them.

  2. 2.

    (3) The chapter on “Developing leaders” lacks focus, relation to the seven leadership sides, and specificity in general. From the authoritative perspective of the Cranfield studies, the reader would expect at least a general approach or guidelines, if not some clear recommendations. After all, in development of successful leaders is where the “rubber hits the road” – that is, ultimately, where the value of research and analysis resides. That is also where the essence of leadership is put to the test.

Having pointed to these shortcomings, I would like to make it clear that this book still has much to offer in expanding even a knowledgeable reader’s perception of this enigmatic topic of leadership. It makes a very useful contribution that, hopefully, will lead to greater concentration of the foundations of leadership, at the expense of the futile search for a definition – a search that seems to resemble the alchemists’ dreams of synthesizing gold.


  1. 1.

    These studies included a National Health Service Trusts survey and surveys of leadership capabilities of top managers in the private sector and of senior civil servants in the Australian Commonwealth government, among an intenstive worldwide study of the attitudes, behaviours and values of chairmen, chief executives, managing directors, directors and general managers (in effect, 5,500 top managers from 12 countries, namely UK, Ireland, France, Germany, Sweden, Spain, Austria, Finland, Japan, China, Hong Kong, USA). The authors specifically credit the insights, experiences and research work to the result of the endeavours of numerous Cranfield teams including that of the International Management Development Centre.


Bass, B.M. (1981), Stodgill’s Handbook of Leadership, Rev. ed., Free Press,New York, NY.

Klenke, K. (1996), Women and Leadership: A Contextual Perspective, Springer, New York, NY.

McCall, M. and Lombardo, M. (Eds) (1978), Leadership: Where Else Can We Go?, Duke University Press, Durham, NC.

Rost, J. (1991), Leadership for the 21st Century, Prager, Greenwood.

Stogdill, R.M. (1974), A Handbook of Leadership: A Review of the Literature, Free Press, New York, NY.

Further reading

Burns, J.M. (1978), Leadership, Harper & Row, New York, NY.

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