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Leaders – a rare breed

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Although leaders were in existence from the pre-historic era of mankind, ‘leadership’ as a concept has gained a great deal of attention only i n recent years. In the business world, at academic institutions, or in the community, time and large sums of money are devoted in developing effective leaders. Why? Because, good leadership is the most critical one factor that fuels the progress in the world, be it in a business, organisation, movement or society at large.

Good leaders can help to oil the nuts and bolts of the engine that keep society pushing forward and to provide the encouragement and support that help people to move things along. Former U.S. President Harry S. Truman - who led the World War II - built a reputation for decisiveness and leadership during critical periods. As Harry Truman said, “In periods where there is no leadership, society stands still,” is a testimony to prove how important the leaders are for world’s progress. One of the most admired warriors of recent history Alexander the Great said, “I am not afraid of an army of lion led by a sheep; I am afraid of an army of sheep lead by a lion,” endorsing leadership.


Since from late, leadership studies are gaining ground because we’re experiencing a contextual change and rapidly evolving complex situations around the globe. Given the profound challenges we face as a global society and the challenges we confront as an institution, society or a nation, it’s not just that we don’t have solutions: we increasingly see that these problems are either prolonged or not solved because of failure in leadership, be it leadership in business, politics or society at large. This changing context may have spurred an interest in and help to legitimize, the studies on ‘leadership’.


Leadership can be viewed and interpreted from diverse perspectives. Leadership is a phenomenon partly rooted in psychology with respect to the sense of identity that leaders have. It is rooted in sociology simply because leadership is a social construct. It’s also a negotiated relationship that individuals have with other individuals or that individuals have with the society. In addition, there is a cultural quality about what constitutes a leader that changes across social situations, whether we are discussing gender or issues in different countries where some styles would be regarded as leader-like and other styles would not be considered as leader-like.



Leadership cannot be purely measured on economic benefits because the consequence of leadership is more holistic than financial outcomes. Some people we honour most as leaders had to deal with significant failures and losses at the need of the hour. Nelson Mandela said, “The greatest glory in living lies not in never failing but in rising every time we fall.”


Evolution of leadership
Study on human and animal leadership behaviour suggest at least five major transitions in the evolution of leadership: (1) Leadership emerged in pre-human species as a mechanism to solve simple group coordination problems where any individual initiated an action and others followed; (2) To foster collective action such as internal peacekeeping in situations, where significant conflicts of interests occur in which dominant or socially important i ndividuals emerged as leaders; (3) Dominance was attenuated in early human egalitarian societies which paved the way for democratic and prestige-based leadership facilitating group coordination; (4) The increase in human group size selected for powerful socialcognitive mechanisms, providing new opportunities for leaders to attract followers through manipulation and persuasion; (5) The increase in social complexity of societies that took place after the agricultural revolution created the need for more powerful and formal leaders to manage complex intra- and intergroup relations - the chiefs, kings, presidents and CEOs - who at best provide important public services and at worst abuse their position of power to dominate and exploit followers.

Followers’ needs
Traditionally the needs that followers want leaders to fulfil are: (1) A need for a dream, a cause or purpose to believe in, to give t heir lives meaning, (2) A need to belong, to be part of something, a group with which the members can be identified and (3) A need to calm their fear that they will fail or be rejected, feelings that generate dependency and security. It is not that followers just search for particular leaders to meet their needs. They actually define leadership in terms of their own needs and align with leaders. However, it should be noted that with the emerging world trends such as globalization, virtual teams, etc., providing direction or creating a common dream is becoming more important. This scenario was amply displayed at t he recently concluded presidential election in Sri Lanka by the followers who supported two prominent candidates.


Why do we always recognize the glamorous CEO or a head of a state as our role model in leadership studies than front-line supervisors? Simply we want leaders who transport us with their charm and dazzling wit, who exude confidence and seem impervious to anxiety. We feel brighter when their light shines on us, taking us out of the dull, cool shade we normally occupy. Surely our need for the leader reflects an acute need within us that only such a person can fulfil. They are a rare breed.


Although there were and there are a whole heap of leadership studies, if we are to define the path of work on leadership, it has been a lot like the metaphor of a blind man trying to describe an elephant. Leadership was the elephant and there were and there are a lot of blind people focusing on different parts of the elephant and explaining the same.


Through t his series of articles we intend t o explore vast knowledge on leadership, leadership theories, attributes of a leader, responsibilities and obligations of a leader and how effective leadership could contribute to the development and progress of a business entity, country or the society at large. The process should lead to enlighten the blind man, so that he could see the elephant in a holistic perspective.
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