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Why defining leadership is imperative

Our definition of leadership offers a starting point to help organizations cut through the clutter.

Draws on deep behavioral and organizational expertise to help leadership teams improve alignment and effectiveness. Helps clients with large-scale performance-culture transformations and leadership development.

Managing Director of McKinsey India. Founder of the McKinsey Leadership Institute. Has helped several major Indian companies to shape their global agenda. Longstanding passion for improving healthcare. Co-founder and board member of the Public Health Foundation of India — an innovative public-private partnership to strengthen India's public health system

Ramesh Srinivasan

Coleads the Pharmaceutical & Medical Products and Organization Practices, is the dean of our CEO learning program, the Bower Forum, and leads our partner learning program

Ask any five management experts what makes a good leader, and chances are you will get six answers: Aspiration. Inspiration. Imagination. Creativity. Authenticity. Integrity. It’s time for a reality check. While there’s no one-word answer to the leadership question, we have identified the stepping stones that enable organizations to develop more effective leadership across the organization.

To pinpoint them, we looked at the major schools of leadership, including traits-based behavioral, situational, functional and psychological perspectives. Each adds richness to defining leadership, yet with the key limitation that each views leadership through a single lens. Since no single model carries the whole field, an integrated definition and approach are required.

Our fresh definition of organizational leadership strives to be comprehensive and pragmatic: Leadership is a set of behaviors that, in a given context, align an organization, foster execution and ensure organizational renewal. They are enabled by relevant skills and mindsets.

Here’s how we arrived at that definition and the implications it triggers:

  1. Leadership comes alive in the behaviors that are used, felt and observed across an organization. They comprise our unit of analysis and are what we measure objectively and seek to enhance during leadership development interventions.
  2. The behaviors are highly contextual depending on each organization. So, it is essential to define leadership traits that prove most effective in helping an organization achieve its performance goals. Take the chief executive of a U.S. energy utility. When the market was deregulated, the company was plunged into the most serious financial crisis of its history. The CEO helped transform the organization into a competitive player in a liberalized global market and is convinced that leadership should be a function of economic reality: “You have to put things in the context of a business model. Who are your real customers? What kind of partner do you need to make it work? What do you really do? And where should that work be done?”
  3. Leaders must be able to create organizational alignment, execution and renewal. Without them, performance suffers long term, as our organizational health research shows. Any leadership model must seek to achieve these three factors.
  4. A leader’s ability to demonstrate effective leadership reflects relevant skills realized through real-life experience. For example, leadership prowess around “championing the desired change” could signify strong storytelling, written and oral communication, influencing skills, and the ability to anticipate and seize pivotal moments. Leadership development intervention must help leaders forge relevant on-the-job skills and behaviors. As management authority Henry Mintzberg maintains, “Leadership, like swimming, cannot be learned by reading about it.”
  5. Leaders must develop the right mindsets based on introspection and self-awareness. Often, underlying mindsets – including needs, fears and core beliefs – are what drive a leader’s behavior in a situation. Only about one-third of the 2,500-plus executives in a McKinsey sample said that their organizations’ transformations explicitly assessed the mindsets that required change to reach their goals. But those that did were four times more likely to succeed. Take, for example, a professional services business that wanted senior leaders to initiate more provocative and meaningful discussions with the firm’s senior clients. Once the trainers looked below the surface, they discovered that these leaders, though highly successful in their fields, were instinctively uncomfortable and lacking in confidence when conversations moved beyond their functional expertise. Only when the leaders realized this, and went deeper to understand why, were they able to commit themselves to concrete steps that helped push them to change.

Why does a definition of leadership matter? An incomplete definition will produce piecemeal leadership development programs with a misguided focus and poor impact. While organizations get plenty of leadership advice, they lack a way to cut through the clutter. Our definition offers a starting point.

For a more detailed view of the different schools of leadership, or to read about our leadership development approach in practice, read the recently released book, Leadership at Scale.

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