What Is A Good Leader?

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We all want to be one. We want our children to be one. And when we’re not one, we want the person in charge to be one.

What is it?

It’s not just a “leader,” it’s a “GOOD leader.”

This represents a significant qualifier. You’ll need to brace yourself for this one. The word doesn’t reflect a moral imperative (yet), it merely alludes to effectiveness.

Now, I know what you’re thinking. You’re thinking, “but if a leader isn’t moral, why would I ever follow him?”

Let me counter that with a different question: If you find yourself placed in a life or death situation—say, for example, you’re trapped in a building that is surrounded by ruthless terrorists—who would you rather have be responsible for leading you out: someone who operates with amoral efficiency or someone willing to sacrifice your life so he doesn’t cross whatever ethical line in the sand he’s drawn for himself?

OK, that was a long sentence to read, but it gets to the point. Leadership, good leadership, effective leadership, often comes with moral dilemma. Should the captain of the ship allow one sailor to die to save the entire ship? Should an undercover agent lie to protect innocent victims?

We’ll set aside these vexing philosophical questions for the moment and stick to the psychology of leadership.

James MacGregor Burns (1918—2014), a Pulitzer Prize winning American historian and political scientist, presidential biographer, and authority on leadership studies, said, “Leadership is one of the most observed and least understood phenomena on earth.”

Burns began his career writing about presidential leadership. By the late 1970s, his 1978 book Leadership established Burns as an authority on leadership studies. In it, he introduced the idea that not all leadership is the same.

He referred to “transactional” leadership as that where the leader interacts with subordinates in a hierarchical fashion. It’s the kind of leadership you see in corporations, politics, and practically all organizations in the industrial age.

Burns said leadership is “transformative” when the leader inspires followers to promulgate change by creating an often idealist vision. You can find these types of leaders in religions, social movements, and cults.

These two styles of leadership have some similarity to the two types of leadership behaviors identified by the Ohio State Leadership Studies in 1945. Ralph M. Stogdill (1904-1978) published a paper based on these studies in 1948 considered to be the defining moment in leadership studies. Reflecting on this research, he wrote in 1963, “It was subsequently found in empirical research that a large number of hypothesized dimensions of leader behavior could be reduced to two strongly defined factors. These were identified by Halpin and Winer (9) and Fleishman (3) as Consideration and Initiation of Structure.”

“Consideration” is people-oriented and can be likened to Burns transformative leadership. “Initiation of Structure” is task-oriented and has qualities similar to Burns’ transactional leadership.

The Ohio State Leadership Studies produced an empirical questionnaire from which Stogdill identified twelve “subscales” or traits. Here’s how he explained them:

  1. “Representation—speaks and acts as the representative of the group.
  2. Demand Reconciliation—reconciles conflicting demands and reduces disorder to system.
  3. Tolerance of Uncertainty—is able to tolerate uncertainty and postponement without anxiety or upset.
  4. Persuasiveness—uses persuasion and argument effectively; exhibits strong convictions.
  5. Initiation of Structure—clearly defines own role and lets followers know what is expected.
  6. Tolerance and Freedom—allows followers scope for initiative, decision, and action.
  7. Role Assumption—actively exercises the leadership role rather that surrendering leadership to others.
  8. Consideration—regards the comfort, well being, status, and contributions of followers.
  9. Production Emphasis—applies pressure for productive output.
  10. Predictive Accuracy—exhibits foresight and ability to predict outcome accurately.
  11. Integration—maintains a closely knit organization; resolves intermember conflicts.
  12. Superior Orientation—maintains cordial relations with superiors; has influence with them; is striving for higher status.”

As you might imagine, post-World War II leadership research framed itself in terms of logistics and other matters most relevant in a military setting. It wasn’t until the 1960s that studies focused more on business management.

Warren Gamaliel Bennis (1925–2014) was another pioneer in leadership studies. A contemporary of Stogdill and Burns, he further refined leadership traits. He also incorporated definitions that have more universal applications. In doing so, Bennis reduced Stogdill’s dozen dimensions to these five areas of competence:

  1. Management of attention—the ability to get others to listen to you.
  2. Management of meaning—the ability to communicate clearly and in an encouraging manner.
  3. Management of trust—the ability to act consistently and with integrity.
  4. Management of self—the ability to avoid being overbearing or too “bossy.”
  5. The Wallenda factor—the ability to identify challenges and take calculated risks.

Judging by the evolution of academic research in leadership studies, you can begin to understand the wisdom behind Burns’ “most observed/least understood” quote. Leadership is complicated. Defining a good leader becomes an exercise in psychology (if not philosophy).

Still, it’s a journey worth taking because it’s a journey of self-enlightenment.

January, being the lead month of the year, seems the perfect time to explore the dynamics of leadership. In this series of columns, we’re going to expand upon the big three traits all leaders strive to attain: Power, Authority, and Influence.

We have explored these in the past in a general way (see “What Every Leader Wants (and Better Have),” Mendon-Honeoye Falls-Lima Sentinel, November 21, 2019). Over the next few weeks, we will dive deeper into these three concepts.

…to be continued next week…


  1. […] how the science of leadership studies defines leadership? Read this week’s Carosa Commentary “What Is A Good Leader?” to take your first step on the journey of […]

  2. […] how the science of leadership studies defines leadership? Read this week’s Carosa Commentary “What Is A Good Leader?” to take your first step on the journey of […]

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