The term ‘leadership’ is used in a variety of ways, although it can be defined the capacity to influence people to achieve a common goal. Leaders adopt many different approaches and can operate at any level, so identifying and developing leaders can be challenging. Yet, when leadership is skilfully demonstrated, it can bring positive outcomes for individuals, teams, organisations and wider communities. So it’s important to develop leaders to fit current and future needs of an organisation, as well as invest in environments that enable leaders to be effective.

This factsheet investigates the concept of leadership and how it differs from management, the various factors that can influence leadership development, and briefly examines how a principles-based approach to practice can support the development of leadership skills in HR.

Leadership can be defined as the capacity to influence people to achieve a common goal.. However, while leadership is currently much discussed and academic studies have multiplied since the 1970s, there’s no single definition or concept of leadership that satisfies all.

What is clear is that leadership covers three integral elements:

  • Self - skilful expression of personal qualities.
  • Other people - staff, line managers, peers but also senior management and other stakeholders.
  • The job to be done - specifying, defining, clarifying, reviewing, and revising when needed, the task to be achieved.

The notion of ‘purpose’ is closely linked. Stated simply, it’s ‘what we are doing this job for.’ When purpose is shared, people become collaborators, offering insights of their own. ‘Climb that hill!’ becomes ‘Climb that hill so we can get a better view of the river’. When people see a point to their efforts, the work itself may become more meaningful.

Three aspects of the nature of leadership have important implications for organisations: the leaders themselves, leadership styles and leadership as a process.

Who are the leaders?

The first studies of leadership focused on the traits or behaviours of individuals in senior positions in organisations. As a result, leadership is often seen as an individual competence or a role. But leadership isn’t just about the qualities of a few and isn’t always associated with a formally-defined role. Whilst leadership is often exercised by those in charge, being in charge is not necessarily a requirement. Perhaps leadership could be best viewed as a choice and not solely as a position. That said, the leadership skills of senior managers are still fundamentally important.

AAs organisations need to become more agile, there’s increasing recognition that all employees need to demonstrate leadership qualities, although the aims and focus of that leadership may change with the individual’s level and differ from one organisation to another.

What is an effective leadership style?

Experience suggests that successful leaders don’t invariably behave in the same way. They may act very differently, even in similar situations, and have quite different personalities. The trap that many fall in to is to always use a favourite approach which could be wrong for the situation. Different leadership qualities may be needed in different circumstances. For example, CEOs who excel in turning round ailing companies may perform less well when things are more stable.

Is leadership a process?

As more is learned about the nature of leadership and the effectiveness of leaders has developed, it’s clear that individual traits or behaviours alone cannot fully explain leadership effectiveness. More research into the role of followers and the relationship between leaders and followers is now available, although the precise mechanisms of the mutual influence aren’t yet fully understood. With that in mind, leadership has been described as a process, or as a capability of the organisation (rather than individual), emphasising the interplay of leaders, followers, and the organisational context that have an impact on leadership effectiveness.

The idea of management that evolved in the nineteenth century, and was later developed into theories by FW Taylor, was largely based on the military principles of command and control. Managing was, and to some extent still is, about the planning, organisation, co-ordination and implementation of strategies, tactics and policies imposed from the top in an apparently rational manner. Administering a strategy is central to this view of management. Later management studies, which looked at the behaviours of those in managerial roles, distinguished between ‘managing tasks’ and ‘managing people’, and acknowledged that influencing people to achieve objectives (leadership) was part of a manager’s role.

Due to the initial focus of leadership research at the senior manager level, ‘leadership’ and ‘management’ are linked and sometimes used interchangeably. Central to many interpretations, leadership is seen to involve developing an initial vision and inspiring others with how that vision may be achieved, while management involves translating the vision into reality by guiding the actions and behaviours of a group of people on a daily basis. A review of the value of various leadership styles suggests that both aspects have a part to play in achieving an organisation's objectives.

New theories of ‘ethical leadership’, which focus on having certain core values alongside a sense of purpose, are another trend driven partly by the ‘soul searching’ that developed in the wake of the 2008 global financial crisis. The current COVID-19 pandemic is making new demands and has highlighted uncertainty in the world of work – find out more in our webinar Leading through crisis. It’s essential that leaders hold to a set of principles that allow them to make ’right’ and ’worthwhile’ decisions regardless of circumstances. Ongoing shifts in corporate governance are driving leaders to articulate these principles and make decisions in an ethical way.

Most leadership studies focus on how leaders are seen by followers, measuring employees’ perceptions of their leaders’ behaviours, and linking those to followers’ accounts of job satisfaction, performance and other outcomes. Our Purposeful leadership research considered the moral values of leaders themselves, defining ‘purposeful’ leadership through a leader’s moral self, their commitment to various stakeholder groups, and the vision they set for their team.

Key findings of the research:

  • Only just over 20% of managers in the UK rated themselves highly as purposeful leaders, while 40% of employees in the UK said their leader behaves ethically.

  • Across the case study organisations, a third of employees said they operate in an ‘ethical void’ where they rate both their leader’s ethical behaviour and the alignment of their own values with those of the organisation as low. By comparison, just over a quarter reported ‘ethical alignment’ and score highly on both.

  • Purposeful leadership is linked to employees’ job satisfaction, whether they find meaning in their work, their willingness to ‘go the extra mile’, their intention to quit, and lower levels of cynicism towards the organisation. In many cases, these links were more significant then employees’ perceptions of their leaders behaving ethically, suggesting that leaders’ moral character makes a difference to employee outcomes.

Because there’s no single template for leadership behaviour, questions remain as to whether leaders can be developed and what the qualities/competencies of leadership are. More importantly, how can organisations encourage such qualities among their employees?

Following the distinction between individual leaders and their particular styles of leading, and leadership as a process existing in the organisational context, two aspects of development activity are needed:

  • Identifying and developing capabilities of individuals to lead others effectively (leader development).
  • Creating organisational structures and a culture that encourage and enable leadership.

Developing individual leaders

Organisations can carry out a range of activities to maximise an individual’s capability to lead. Our management development factsheet looks at identifying development needs and the techniques involved in developing leaders and managers.

Organisations use a range of methods to define and measure the leadership capability needed by the organisation in the short- and long-term, although reports on leadership capability consistently highlight skills gaps, and in particular the leadership skills required in the future. Selecting individuals with leadership capabilities or the potential to develop it comes under the remit of succession planning.

Many organisations provide activities to develop leadership capabilities of individuals through training, development and experience. Despite the clear business case for line managers also to be leaders, many organisations promote people in managerial roles based on their technical competence, rather than leadership skills. These individuals are likely to need more formal and/or informal support to be effective leaders. Organisational approaches to leadership development differ in the behaviours believed to support the overall strategy, as well as the learning methods used. Our report Developing managers to support employee engagement, health and well-being collected the latest evidence on designing successful manager development programmes.

Many current leadership theories emphasise leaders’ values. Corresponding leadership development approaches focus on identifying and developing individuals that display honesty, integrity and strongly held moral principles, and translate them into behaviours of leading others. Our research report Cultivating trustworthy leaders showed how some organisations have used value-based approaches to recruitment and development to encourage employees’ trust in their leaders.

Relevant experience is an important part of individual leader development. ‘Leadership transitions’, or the stages when leaders’ responsibilities, time allocation and priorities change as a result of promotion, introduce particular challenges. This is where leadership development overlaps with other factors.

Organisational design and development to enable leadership

Leadership is often viewed as a collective phenomenon or a process. For example, a shared or distributed leadership model suggests that leadership can be shared by team members, with the role of leader taken up when required, involving lateral influence and directed by the team dynamics. However, this needs the organisation structure and culture to support the understanding of leadership not as an individual characteristic, but as a process that happens between people.

Our research reported in Leadership – easier said than done showed that even where individuals have leadership skills, their ability to lead in practice is affected by organisational factors, including hierarchical structures, performance management systems and other people management policies and practices. Aligning organisation design and culture can bridge the gap between leadership capability and ability – see our report Tackling the barriers to leadership overview and case studies or listen to our podcast on barriers to leadership.

See more in our factsheets on organisation design and organisation development.

Our Profession for the Future programme highlights the need for leadership in the people profession as organisations increasingly realise the value of their people, but without sustainable approaches to achieving productive, win-win relationships between the organisation and its workforce.

In the past, people professional have relied on so-called ’best practice’ to develop people management practices for their organisations. But the rapidly changing world of work means this concept is increasingly irrelevant in many contexts. Instead, professionals will be making situational judgments, underpinned by relevant evidence, to allow them to meet the specific needs of their particular organisation and workforce without compromising the core principles of good HR. Other professions are adopting similar principles-based approaches to practice. Our research provides an early indication of what the principles for people management and development practice could be. It encourages HR professionals to act as ‘provocateurs’, encouraging innovative ways of doing business or new areas of strategic focus.


Acas - Leadership

Books and reports

BOLDEN, R., WITZEL, M. and LINACRE, N. (2016) Leadership paradoxes: rethinking leadership for an uncertain world. Abingdon: Routledge.

DEPARTMENT FOR BUSINESS, INNOVATION AND SKILLS. (2012) Leadership & management in the UK - the key to sustainable growth : a summary of the evidence for the value of investing in leadership and management development. London: Department for Business Innovation and Skills.

GOLD, J., THORPE, R. and MUMFORD, A. (2010) Leadership and management development. 5th ed. London: Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development.

HOLBECHE, L. (2010) HR leadership. Oxford: Butterworth Heinemann.

LADKIN, D. (2011) Rethinking leadership: a new look at old leadership questions. Cheltenham: Edward Elgar Publishing.

TATE, W. (2013) Managing leadership from a systemic perspective. London: Centre for Progressive Leadership. 

WATSON, G. and REISSNER, S.C. (2014) Developing skills for business leadership. 2nd ed. London: Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development.

Journal articles

AZIZ, H. (2019) Why is humility so relevant for leaders and can it be developed through coaching? Strategic HR Review. Vol 18, No 1. Reviewed in In a Nutshell, issue 85.

BEDDOES-JONES, F. and SWAILES, S. (2015) Authentic leadership: development of a new three pillar model. Strategic HR Review. Vol 14, No 3. pp94-99.

FERNANDEZ-ARAOZ, C., IQBAL, S. and RITTER, J. (2015) Leadership lessons from great family businesses. Harvard Business Review. Vol 93, No 4, April. pp82-88.

GINO, F. and PISANO, G.P. (2011) Why leaders don't learn from success. Harvard Business Review. Vol 89, No 4, April. pp68-74.

HURLEY, A. (2020) What kinds of leaders will equip organisations to survive crisis and disruption?People Management (online). 26 March.

LOVEGROVE, N. and THOMAS, M. (2013) Triple-strength leadership. Harvard Business Review. Vol 91, No 9, September. pp46-54,56.

SCHWARTZ, J., THOMSON, J. and KLEINER, A. (2017) The neuroscience of strategic leadership. Strategy and Business. Issue 87, Summer. Reviewed in In a Nutshell, issue 71.

WATKINS, M.D. (2012) How managers become leaders. Harvard Business Review. Vol 90, No 6, June. pp65-72.

CIPD members can use our online journals to find articles from over 300 journal titles relevant to HR.

Members and People Management subscribers can see articles on the People Management website.

This factsheet was last updated by Stuart Haden and Jon Davidge.

Stuart Haden: CIPD Programme Manager

Stuart builds proposals and designs courses for UK and international clients. He manages the delivery of face to face and digital programmes, continuously refreshing content and producing new products.

A learning and development professional with over 25 years’ experience as a facilitator, coach and consultant, Stuart specialises in developing optimal performance with individuals, teams and organisations. Throughout his work he values authenticity, coachability and personal energy.

In 2013 he published his first book It’s not about the coach: getting the most from coaching in business, sport and life.

Jon Davidge

Jon Davidge

Jon designs and runs leadership and coaching courses as an associate of CIPD. His career included an early grounding with Procter & Gamble followed by a series of senior roles at home and abroad in the publishing industry. He has over thirty years of training and development experience, including five years as Head of Training at The Leadership Trust. A fully qualified coach and coaching supervisor, Jon is driven to ‘fire up and support those who want to make the most of their talent’. He is the director and principal consultant at Ascent Coaching.