Opinion: The changing face of leadership in 2021

By John Mark Williams, CEO, The Institute of Leadership & Management
Motivation, support and reward are the fundamentals of leadership, argues John Mark Williams, CEO at The Institute of Leadership & Management

It is difficult to write a piece about leadership without succumbing to the temptation to ask ‘What is leadership, anyway?’. It’s hard to discuss it, unless we know what it is.

When I asked Google (the undisputed leader amongst sources of information) for a definition, it gave me 3 billion results. Interestingly, most were along the lines of ‘the action of leading a group of people or an organisation’, or ‘the state or position of being a leader’. In other words – leadership is what a leader does. Not all that helpful.

Others were more instructive: ‘the art of motivating a group of people to act toward achieving a common goal’, or from Harvard Business Review, the slightly unfeeling and 1970s-like ‘the accomplishment of a goal through the direction of human assistants’.

All well and good, yet something is still missing – and it is the ‘Why?’ of leadership. What’s the purpose of this thing we call leadership, and why do we even need it? Google only gave me 1.5 billion responses to that, and my own view is a fairly succinct one – the purpose of leadership is additionality. 

Eyebrows may be raised at that, because we have acquired the habit of assuming we need a leader for everything (and I admit it looks a bit cryptic). Yet if we can do things without anyone being the leader, that’s how they should be done – no point in a superfluous position. It therefore follows that the purpose of leadership, first and foremost, must be to achieve a result that cannot be achieved any other way.

We should also recognise (bearing in mind the definitions above) that the ‘result’ isn’t a product of the leader’s efforts directly or solely. Towing a caravan or driving a long train of carriages isn’t leadership – it is direction and control. So, leadership involves achieving a result through the collegiate efforts of a group, team or organisation greater than the leader themselves.

And that brings us to the nub of things. People are not inanimate objects. People cannot – and should not – simply be told what to do. So, the ‘art of motivating… people… toward… a common goal’, as mentioned above, sounds just the ticket. Yet, whilst motivation is necessary, it is not sufficient.

To provide real additionality, leadership needs to contain all the elements we associate with human behaviour, and I think there are three: motivation, support and reward.

So, my definition for leadership is also succinct: To motivate and support people in the achievement of a common reward. 

Note that the word ‘lead’ doesn’t appear. Nor does instruct, or direct, or tell – in fact the way in which the leadership is applied is almost disturbingly vague. And that’s deliberate, because the ‘How?’ of leadership defies any prediction – although of course that’s only my opinion.

What is The Institute of Leadership & Management?

Much more than a professional body, UK-based The Institute of Leadership & Management combines years of research, knowledge and innovation to champion the leadership agenda for all. Since 1947, the institute has carried out extensive research into the knowledge skills, attitudes, behaviours and values of great leadership and consistently use their expertise to raise standards and help others develop and grow.

They deliver world-class leadership tools and resources to help people and businesses unlock individual and business potential, and as a ‘charity’ can do so at competitive prices. Clients have included businesses such as Siemens Energy, British Telecom, Bluefin Insurance, institutions including Coventry and Durham universities, as well as other non-profit organisations including the RSPCA, Amnesty International and the EY Foundation.


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