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the two faces of leadership…

Is leadership positional, or attributional? This article explores the case for each viewpoint – and of course, it can be a combination of both…

There are traditionally two main views about leadership:

  1. the functional, formal view – that it is a set of responsibilities, associated with post, and residing at the head of the organisation (i.e. headship); and the personality view – that it can exist anywhere, at any level, within the organisation, and is essentially an attribute or set of attributes that anyone can have (i.e. attribution). The first half of this paper is based on the first view – i.e. I am taking leadership as headship- the top person and his or her leadership team.
  2. The second half will look at leadership as a set of attributes.

Another way of ensuring ongoing clarity is for leadership itself to lead by example – to walk the talk. Another key way is to communicate ‘exemplars’ of good practice or success, which reinforce ‘the way’.

Leadership as Headship

These are the three crucial elements of headship:

  1. clarity
  2. positive intervention
  3. profiling


There are three types of clarity:

  • initial, or set up, clarity
  • ongoing clarity
  • clarity from confusion

Initial or set up clarity

What we are doing, why, and how we are going to do it. This is about being clear about mission, vision, business priorities, strategies and tasks (it’s also about culture, values, beliefs and style). The leadership needs to be clear about this and communicate it so everyone else is too. The leadership also needs to clarify if and when:

  • there seems to be uncertainty due to changes externally or internally
  • there are mixed messages/signals to respond to
  • there is overload

Ongoing clarity

This is about establishing clear templates, or frameworks, to act as day to day guides for ALL staff, so there is a clear song sheet from which everyone can sing…

The way we do things around here – norms of good practice, key principles and values; leaders ensure these are clear and rewarded; and any counters are challenged and ideally removed.

Clarity from Confusion

Clarity is part of workforce reassurance; people hate

  • uncertainty – don’t know what’s coming or what to do
  • ambiguity – unclear or mixed messages
  • conflicting pressures -too much; or being pulled in different directions

Clarifying is a key step to resolving the above, and reassuring the workforce (ie reducing anxiety, stress and fear)

Some of this is proactive: anticipating likely difficulties in these three areas and taking appropriate action; some of it will be reactive – responding to breaking news…

Positive intervention

Most of the time leadership can be quite quiet – a ‘light touch on the tiller’ idea- especially if the organisation is essentially self managing (most people being willing and able to do a good job, with a clear brief and adequate resources)

However, from time to time, there will be a need for leadership to show itself – to intervene, make a statement, and /or make a stand.

The 3 crucial areas for this are:

  • crisis
  • change
  • crossroads

A support base which is loyal and competent: leaders can be easily isolated in their role (which is why some leaders are poor at it – they fear a coup if they’re away too much …). Some organisations have a clear separation between its ‘ amabassador’ leader, and a deputy who is good at ‘site management’ – ie can be trusted to mind the shop.  By the way, this model can create problem for succession : promoting the site manager to the ambassador role might be a disaster- they are not the same skills sets… but the ‘next in line’ might resent not getting the top job..

Another way of ensuring ongoing clarity is for leadership itself to lead by example – to walk the talk. Another key way is to communicate ‘exemplars’ of good practice or success, which reinforce ‘the way’.


Something is happening, internally or externally, which is potentially a crisis for the organisation; this is when the workforce expect leadership to earn its corn. It must intervene, but not like a batch of headless chickens. Ideally good leadership will have assessed potential crises and have appropriate Plan B’s in place – and ideally have taken proactive action to prevent the crisis in the first place (which, interestingly, makes it less likely that such good leadership will be noticed…!)


Change is inevitable, and wherever it affects the organisation, there is a need for leadership in introducing, then embedding , this change


In most organisations, there will be a crossroad; some critical decision (but not yet a crisis) will force a consideration of direction.  For example:

  • are we staying with this business or introducing a substitute?
  • are we going alone, or merging or selling?
  • are we consolidating or expanding?

Such decisions around these crossroads will fundamentally affect the business and thus the future of all those who work for it; at best it may call for a job redesign and restructure, and at worst it could put jobs at risk, and even the company’s future on the line. This is another area where leaders are expected to make a positive difference.


Under the headship model, leaders are clearly visible, both within the organisation and externally (or they should be…whereas, in the attribution model, many leaders are relatively low profile and unseen…).

In the profile role, leaders represent the organisation to the outside world, as both ambassadors and advocates. It is clearly part of their job to ‘sell’ the organisation to the external world, and as a result attract support, both physical and emotional.

To fulfil this role, leaders may need to be off site a lot – meeting and greeting, networking and influencing, attending seminars, giving papers, etc. In order to do this well, they need the following conditions:

  • Key Skills
  • Alignment
  • Support base


Key skills sets include championing, selling, enthusing, advocating.

To be aligned, they must be a chip off the block – they must be consistent with what the public sees in the company, or with what the leadership wants the public to see.  Put another way, the leader’s brand must match the company brand.

Often such attributional leaders speak with conviction and passion. They are passionate and compelling; they have excellent communication skills. They speak the language that appeals to their followers. Their lack for formal techniques or skills can actually be an asset – they need no technology or media skills, their personal conviction and integrity around the issue they are raising is enough. ( In fact, when the media experts take over, some of this attributional and personal effectiveness and appeal can be lost…)


Leadership as attribution

From this perspective, leadership is seen less as a position, and more as a series of attributes. So in this version, leadership can exist anywhere within the organisation, and depends less on position than on personal characteristics, or attributes.

Clearly there are a wide range of possible characteristics that help people assume a leadership role, but these 5 seem to be the most crucial:

  1. sense of timing
  2. courage
  3. vision
  4. passion ( enthusiasm+communication skills)
  5. resonance

Sense of timing

“cometh the hour, cometh the person”. Attributional leadership can be as much about timing as anything; for it to be effective, the right person has to to be in the right place at the right time.  So a good leader, wherever they are in the organisation, must both sense, then seize, the moment. Another saying that’s pertinent here: ” in the absence of a leader, a leader will emerge”


Many attributional leaders have no formal authority, no legitimate power or influence. Hence the need for courage – to seize the moment. This does not mean carrying out a coup (though history is littered with such examples); it can also mean having the courage of speaking up, and speaking out; knowing ‘something needs to be done’, and ensuring that you at least will not be found wanting. Again this is a crucial attribute in times of crisis, uncertainty and change. Many people welcome courageous leadership – someone to rally behind; and someone who will speak up for them.

These two models of leadership – headship and attribution – are not mutually exclusive. In fact, a headship leader who has the above attributes would be a particularly effective one.


Any leader – formal or otherwise – must be able to look up, look out and look ahead. This is more than just foresight: it is about having a vision of how things should or need to be, and being able to articulate this in a credible and persuasive way.


For people who are not in positions of leadership, their credibility and support must come from their character and believability; would you be willing to line up and support this person – and if so, why?


Attributional leaders cannot call on their track record as a leader, so they mainly – only? – can rely on their personal values, beliefs and how they are as a person. So a coherent set of values that others can identify with is essential. Attributional leaders must strike a chord with those they lead: there must be resonance, a ‘common touch’.

These two models of leadership – headship and attribution – are not mutually exclusive. In fact, a headship leader who has the above attributes would be a particularly effective one.

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We know it’s a faff
And a bit of a pain;
But it really helps us
Stay on top of our game…