Usually this was most apparent in group projects. The group's first order of business was always to select a leader. This was done by someone asking, "Who wants to be group leader?" Everyone would give each other blank stares until someone finally responded with, "I'll do it, I guess."
Sometimes the group leader would simply end up being the group secretary, responsible for writing down the answers and turning in the final paper. Other times the poor bastard would actually try to "lead." Depending on who the leader was, this would take a few different forms. Some leaders would try to make all the decisions and tell people what work they were going to do, even before anyone had started brainstorming about the project. Other leaders would wait for someone else to come up with a good idea and would then say, "Okay, here's what we're going to do!" and repeat the idea.
So basically school was worthless when it came to understanding or teaching leadership, and group projects were only good as an exercise in frustration (which is clearly a good exercise for the real world).
Ultimately, I think leadership is simply organizing the behavior of a group of people. So, basically, it's telling people what to do. Good leaders tell people to do the right things and don't piss people off when they tell them. Good leaders also resolve disputes by helping others make good decisions. Good leaders are also able to take the best advantage of the skills of the members in the team.
Over the years in observing how people try to lead, and how other people seem to lead without trying, I've decided leadership has more to do with personality than anything else. These are the three ways I've identified that seem pretty common:
- Lead by decree
- Lead by consensus
- Lead by respect
The people who lead by decree come into a meeting with their minds made up and tell everyone else what the team is going to do. Sometimes these people try to pretend they want other people's input, but instead of actually listening to what people are saying they just wait for them to finish talking so they can go back to convincing everyone to do what they want.
The lead by concensus type is more democratic. They bring their ideas to the table along with everyone else's and allow everyone to argue it out. Which ever idea the team decides on wins. The lead by consensus type of person typically doesn't throw their weight around to get what they want, even if they have any weight to throw. That doesn't mean they give up on their idea completely, but it means they usually defer to the group before trying to issue a decree. This can be a problem when a decision really needs to be made or when a firmer hand is warranted, because you don't want to waste forever arguing around in circles. Typically I think I fall into this category.
The lead by respect person is a rare and impressive find. These are people who everyone simple likes and respects so much that other people actually want them to lead. I've only known a few of these kinds of people and I've never been fully able to understand how they did it. Sometimes these people never even come across as telling people what to do.
These are the three "categories" I thought up, and as you can tell they focus more on how a single person actually behaves. I did some brief google research and found Lewin's Leadership Styles. Interestingly, these correspond somewhat well with my own take, but they capture more of the gray area:
- Authoritarian Leadership - leading by decree
- Participative Leadership - leading by consensus but retaining the final say
- Delegative Leadership - leading completely by consensus and/or allowing everyone to make their own decisions
Some interesting thoughts. No one leadership style can be considered the best. It depends on the circumstances. For example, if the leader is the most skilled of the group, Authoritarian leadership makes the most sense. However, if the peers are primarily equal, Participative makes the most sense.
The leadership style also dramatically affects the group members. If the group members are very independent people, they may prefer a Delegative leadership style. But, while they may prefer it, it may not be the most effective.
Finally I've been in very few situations where there really was one leader. Leadership tends to float around, landing on different people at different types. The title doesn't float around, but the actual act of leading does. I think its this fact that makes effective leadership important. You have to recognize that leading doesn't mean controlling every detail. And you have to work well with other people when the leadership bubble has landed on them. Otherwise you're just going to piss everyone off.