Stefan Kirilov is a young professional with 6 years’ work experience. Currently, he is a change manager at a multinational enterprise following a one-year career break, which he used to gain an MBA in Sweden. While studying at Jönköping International Business School, Stefan was honoured with a creativity award. He is enthusiastic about professional development and is usually involved in extra-curricular activities beyond his main job, his main focus being environmental protection and human rights.

It’s quite common nowadays to hear that we live in an increasingly globalised world. So it’s no wonder that, alongside globalisation, we are witnessing dramatic changes in the leadership field. MBA programmes – being the primary supplier of fresh minds to the corporate world – have the main aim of keeping pace with a fast-changing world by providing professionals with the necessary skills and abilities to become successful leaders. Yet, oddly enough, we still haven’t provided a conclusive answer to one question – What is leadership?

The academic answer

Leadership is broad in scope: it plays a key role in social life, politics and business, to name but a few fields, hence so much attention is given to nurturing it. It is therefore no surprise that business schools focus their programmes and curricula around leadership and leadership subtopics.

Academic literature offers us many perspectives on leadership. We should start with a rather simple explanation by Keith Grint, who attempts to capture its essence. He says that leadership is essentially defined by its success in creating followers. This is manifestly true for any form of leadership and is by no means limited to business ventures. In other words, leadership could be perceived as the ability to inspire and involve people – the art of instilling dedication in others.

In 2010, Jennifer Chatman and Jessica Kennedy concluded in their paper "Psychological Perspectives on Leadership"  that leadership is the process of motivating people to complete tasks and attain great results through collaboration. Whatever anyone ever had to say about leadership, we can now agree with Grint that no questions on the definitions of leadership can be answered in full outside a particular context.

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Examining the theory of leadership and assessing lessons learned by career leaders allows us to weigh up the traits required for successful leadership. Whatever else, it can be seen as a comfortable coming-together of three areas: personal traits, interpersonal relationships and strategic behaviour.

Personal traits and leadership

Individual characteristics are pivotal to any given leadership style and impact greatly on the decision-making capabilities of the person. They also play a significant role in outlining “Who is the true leader?” Coming back to Grint’s comments on the particular context of leadership, we discover that other authors have also made similar observations. For instance, when writing about soft and hard skills, Joseph Nye points out that contextual intelligence is an important leadership quality that helps a person to choose between soft and hard power, and the appropriate course of action in a particular situation. There are two good examples of using hard and soft power in practice:  Jack Welch’s thorough transformation of General Electric during very hard times, and Jan Carlzon’s revitalisation of Scandinavian Airlines. They both managed to change the core values of the people who embodied those companies.

Looking at traits in isolation, however, does not reveal the true nature of leadership. Openness and candour are traits praised by several noted authors, including Paul J.H. Schoemaker, Steve Krupp, and Samantha Howland, as well as R. Duane Ireland and Michael A. Hitt. The consensus is that successful leaders have identifiable personal traits, particularly effective when combined with a willingness to accept new practices and unorthodox solutions. Leaders are expected to have self-awareness, knowledge and experience, so they are can improvise and show resilience in uncertain times.

Interpersonal relationships

Undoubtedly, when we speak of capacity we need to consider a factor indispensable to leadership, notably one-to-one relationships. Leaders need to adapt well to their surroundings and their success depends on cultivating good interpersonal relationships. As noted earlier, the leader’s goal is to influence others and gain followers, hence the only way leaders can connect with people is through building a relationship characterised by communication and trust. To create a basis for trust and tap into other’s feelings, leaders must have self-insight and be able to overcome their own emotional bias. In other words, leaders are expected to be emotionally intelligent. The Scandinavian Airlines example showed us how Carlzon’s emotional intelligence strengthened his employees’ dedication to the company by encouraging them to be self-driven and comfortable in their surroundings.

Strategic behaviour

The personal traits and the interpersonal relationships set out above are key to supporting the “structure” of what could be seen as successful leadership behaviour. However, for this picture to be considered complete, leaders need to have a more specific strategy on how to execute their plans. In 2013, Schoemaker, Krupp and Howland described strategic leadership as a leader’s skill to improve fortunes through his or her abilities to anticipate, challenge, interpret, decide, align and learn. Leaders are appraised by their ability to foresee and understand upcoming events, to challenge their own and others’ assumptions, to capture the essence of problems and to recognise patterns, to make decisions based on short- and long-term goals, to find common ground with others and to learn from their experiences and mistakes.

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In conclusion, leaders are expected to inspire commitment in the organisation’s community to encourage employees to develop and make use of their new knowledge. This is achieved through applying both hard and soft power. The individual’s ability to anticipate, envision, remain flexible, think strategically and work with others to initiate changes capable of creating a viable future for the organisation is the essence of strategic leadership. By skilfully balancing the three aspects (personal traits, interpersonal relationships and strategic behaviour) the chances of becoming a successful leader grow significantly and thus they could be considered key elements in defining leadership.

Of course, this is just the academic view of leadership, but I sincerely believe it is the foundation of any good leader. This is what the MBA taught me and I promised myself to always abide by it.

This article is original content produced by Advent Group and included in the 2016-2017 annual Access MBA, EMBA and Masters Guide under the title “What the MBA Taught me About Leadership (OP-ED)”. An online version of the Guide is available here.