Leadership Challenges


Leadership is a contentious term given that it is viewed both as a concept and as a process. However, it is widely held that leadership is a process that entails influence. The popular view holds that leaders exercise power over juniors or followers. As a term, leadership is often confused with management. Although largely similar, the two concepts differ slightly. Whereas management focuses on work, leadership concentrates on the human aspect of those involved in work. Current paper defines leadership before highlighting the challenges that leaders face in practice.

Defining Leadership

Despite the existence of many studies on leadership, much remains uncovered about the process. Apparently, studying concepts/ processes, such as leadership, is challenging given the difficulty involved in defining them and agreeing on their appropriate measures. The absence of consensus among leadership theorists further complicates the scenario. As a result, little gains have been made towards the understanding of leadership. More than three decades ago, Burns (1978, p. 19) stated that “Leadership is among the most observed, yet the least understood phenomenon on earth.” The truth in the statement by the researcher remains reflective of the situation regarding the term at the time, as well as now. It is noted that the observation by Burns (1978) reignited interest in the topic. However, it is apparent that in the past, leadership was associated with militaries although in the current times, the rising need and emergence of business leaders have altered the landscape markedly.

Based on my understanding, leadership is a process of influence that involves a leader prevailing upon followers to work towards a common goal. Presuming that the real meaning of leadership is influence, as Van Knippenberg, B., Van Knippenberg, D., De Cremer & Hogg (2005) held, then leadership would assume the definition proposed by Kouzes & Posner (2002) that it is the activity of mobilizing followers to work towards the attainment of shared objectives. However, Ulrich, Zenger & Smallwood (1999) contended that mobilization/ influence (leadership) would count for nothing if it failed to yield positive outcomes. The observation by the latter authors is consistent with the statement by renowned business scholar, Drucker (1993) who remarked, “Leadership is all about results”. In essence, the value of leadership is in the results that it generates.

Having reviewed extensive literature on both theory and practice of leadership, Northouse (2007) concluded that the number of leadership definitions were as many as those people who had tried to define the concept. The author proceeded to define leadership as a process involving individual(s) controlling others in the pursuit of a specified goal. However, Kotter (1990) took a different dimension in defining the term having contrasted it with management. For Kotter (1990), management focuses on promoting predictability, order and consistency through planning, budgeting, staffing, controlling, and solving problems whereas leadership was interested in producing change. Thus, leadership is about establishing direction through visioning, aligning people with strategies, in addition to inspiring or motivating followers. Lewis, J., Packard & Lewis, M. (2007) who conceded that leadership is a critical success factor involved in coordinating and aligning organizational processes, support the position. Fundamentally, leadership works as other aspects of organizations by focusing on performance or effectiveness in the pursuit of objectives.

After the review of selected articles on leadership, it appears that researchers come up with two tentative definitions. On the one hand, one group focuses on behaviors and activities of leaders while, on the other hand, others pay attention to the internal attributes of leaders. Despite the distinction, the link between the views of the groups remains unclear as well as difficult to comprehend.

Leadership Challenges

The involvement of leadership in human activities is bound to generate a number of concerns. In his article “What Leaders Really Do”, Kotter (1990) observed that although distinct, leadership and management were essential to attain improved performance. Citing the case of organizations in the US, Kotter (1990) believed that many of them were over-managed while being under-led at the same time. Equally important, Kotter (1990) noted that strong leadership and quick management are not appropriate. What is required is establishing the right balance between the two.
According to Kotter (1990), the most critical role that leadership plays is to manage change. It is evident that the organizational environment has become more complex, competitive, and volatile. Technological developments, increasing international competition, overcapacity within capital-intensive industries, market deregulation, unstable markets, changing demographics, among many factors have meant that the business environment is overly unpredictable as well as difficult to understand. Yet, leaders are expected to devise ways to lead their organizations through such turmoil. Practically, replicating what was done previously is far from certain. Organizations must undertake major reforms to fit into the changing environment. As the level of change increases, the demand for more appropriate leadership increases as well.

Illustrative Cases

The Case of Acer

The following case draws on the article by Bartlett & St. George (2001). Stan Shih’s decisions demonstrate a high degree of leadership and maturity. For instance, when he was contemplating the Aspire project, which had to be the first product of its kind, the leader had the time to invite critics to raise their views. The development of the product was based on the expectation that there was a market opportunity for such products (Bartlett & St. George 2001). It is a demonstration of leadership given that Stan Shih did not bide time to see what other players were doing. A good leader must be able to sense opportunities, and take them (Kelloway, Slater & Barling 2000). However, there is always a challenge of responding to market gaps but fail to achieve the expected results. Nevertheless, a good leader takes measured risks, as Stan Shih did in this case.

Apart from the critics of Stan Shih’s position on the new project, some observers thought the plan was sound (Bartlett & St. George 2001). However, even the supporters of the move felt that the implementation plan lacked clear direction. In particular, critics of the arrangement felt that the location of the company’s production and engineering expertise in Taiwan would impede the process because it was risky to coordinate and transfer the innovative products from an inexperienced group outside the country (Bartlett & St. George 2001).

There was also a concern regarding how the company’s client-server framework and local connection would support the Aspire project to gain global acceptance (Bartlett & St. George 2001). In particular, there was an expectation that redesigning the product to capture variations from one region to the next was required. However, Stan Shih figured out that such an approach would deny his company economies of large-scale operation. Consequently, he soldiered on with the initial plan. In this regard, leadership faced a challenge because of the inclusivity and decisiveness requirements. A leader needs to consider views from various quarters before arriving at a decision (Waldman, Ramirez, House & Puranam 2001). At the same time, a leader must be decisive in taking action. Under such circumstances leaders find themselves at crossroads. However, Stan Shih demonstrated his astuteness by pushing ahead with the plan while giving his critics an opportunity to voice their concerns.

The Case of the American Express

Kotter (1990) uses the case of Lou Gerstner at American Express to demonstrate the kind of challenges that leadership faces. Gerstner became the leader of the Travel Related Services branch of the American Express when the unit was facing a major challenge as banks were about to enter its market through the introduction of credit cards. Similarly, other players were angling for the provision of travelers’ checks. Such changes lower an entity’s market share. However, Gerstner was unmoved by the developments as he instead focused on understanding the economics, competition, and markets in order to further comprehend the business. Gerstner led the company to concentrate on the affluent customer by enhancing product/ service quality. Through segmentation, and developing a wide range of products, and focusing on reducing costs, TRS emerged as the best in the market.

Kotter (1990) also noted that within seven days of his appointment, Gerstner had questioned popularly held ideas that the organization should focus on only one card, and that no room for innovation existed. In this regard, a leader should be able to challenge popular beliefs and assumptions. A challenging leader must take risks of destabilizing a working environment. However, the risk must be informed by clever thinking so that at the end, the logic of questioning the assumptions would prevail (Kelloway, Slater & Barling 2000). The same demonstrates that leaders must be able to face challenges in the environment. Through careful analysis of trends, leaders need to identify solutions or avenues that their organizations need to employ in a bid to move forward.

The Case of Konigsbrau Corporation

Leadership also encounters the problem of decisiveness. In order to gain a deeper understanding, reference is made to the case of Konigsbrau. Gabarro (2008) illustrates the case of Konigsbrau Corporation. Wolfgang Keller who was a leading director at the company was on his way back to Europe. The vacation was necessitated by the insistence of Keller’s boss. The Konigsbrau Corporation where Keller worked was a Munich-based brewer which led world charts on its category. While on his trip, Keller was thinking about the underperformance of his deputy, Brodsky. Among the options, that Keller was considering included dismissal or withholding of the worker’s pay rise. However, Keller understood that firing Brodsky could disrupt the organization. Similarly, prevailing upon him to leave voluntarily would raise concerns.

The case of the Konigsbrau Corporation presents a major challenge not only to the management of the organization but also to its leadership. Based on the scenario, Brodsky demonstrated mixed results on his managerial ability. The question about his future is a major challenge that requires decisive action. However, Keller is unsure about what to do. The situation depicts what many organizations face. As Kotter (1990) observed, establishing a balance between leadership and management is vital for the attainment of success. In the current case, it is apparent that Keller is postponing his decision regarding what to do. The issue captures the challenges that leaders face while on their day-to-day operations. By delaying to act, Keller is allowing the enterprise to underperform. On the other hand, taking action is likely to disrupt the organization. Such circumstances are not only intriguing but also frustrating for leaders. However, decisiveness is a major characteristic that Keller must demonstrate in handling the situation.

The Case of CEOs

Besides working as managers, CEOs also double as organizational leaders. According to Porter and Nohria (2008), as leaders, CEOs have responsibilities. New CEOs are often surprised by the intensity and depth of issues that they are expected to handle. The leadership position demands that the occupant responds to all concerns that arise. Demands from boards of directors, shareholders, industry groups, analysts, politicians, and other parties compound the leadership problem. In this regard, balancing such obligations is central to the leader’s performance.

CEOs enjoy formal authority which allows them to carry out many responsibilities such as resource allocation, and hiring/ dismissing staff (Porter & Nohria 2008). However, the power is constrained. The leaders realize that they are held accountable for their actions. They are also under an obligation not to overuse their powers by making unilateral decisions. In practice, CEOs can make decisions without reference to their juniors. However, the danger of alienating the other players poses a risk to cohesion and team performance. Consequently, the top leaders must adopt an approach that is participatory in order to increase the chances of success. However, when results are not achieved, CEOs cannot cite underperformance on the part of the junior staff as an excuse or a reason.

Shifting their attention to information, Porter and Nohria (2008) observed that although CEOs have an access to information, they are largely cut off from informal organization channels. Typically, only formal information, which is processed and synthesized, gets to the CEO’s desk. Such information is also targeted because it is driven by a specific agenda. Therefore, the top leaders need to delve deeper to find out the true picture regarding organizational affairs. Given the editing that junior staff do on the information availed to the CEO, the leader is obliged to conduct due diligence to ascertain the true picture on the ground. The implication is that the leadership challenge is tasking, as leaders must go beyond the formal channels to understand the prevailing circumstances.

Porter and Nohria (2008) have also explored the aspects of time and horizon. Many stakeholders, such as customers and workers, are always seeking direct access to CEOs. Besides, certain organizational rituals or functions require the presence of the CEO. The leader is also expected to attend other issues such as testifying in legal matters or addressing shareholder’s concerns. Thus, leaders must exercise prudence concerning how they manage time. Overall, the work of such persons is demanding as well as challenging in as far as time management is concerned.
Regarding the horizon aspect, reference is made to the expectation that CEOs are tasked with unique roles. Viewed bluntly, the leaders are in charge of the long-term health of the entities that they lead (Porter & Nohria 2008). The ability to ensure sustainability lies in envisioning where the organization will be in the future and implementing the appropriate strategies. Apart from the long-term responsibility, CEOs are also required to address short-term issues when serving in public companies.

Handling uncertainty is a challenge that CEOs have to face. As organizational leaders, CEOs must be proactive by setting agendas, developing plans and driving action. Leaders are expected to foresee the future and take the necessary steps to mitigate anticipated problems. Besides the difficulties involved in predicting the future, devising plans to handle contingencies is a bigger problem that CEOs must address.

Emerging and Other Challenges

From the introduction, it is clear that leadership plays the role of aligning followers with the vision of an organization. In order to achieve this, the leadership must overcome the challenge involved in communication (Kouzes & Posner 2002). Hence, vision alignment is more of a communication rather than a design issue. Kotter (1990) noted that aligning entails engaging many individuals compared to organizing. It is the role of a leader to involve managers, subordinates, peers, bosses, and other members of staff. Organizational stakeholders also need to be involved in the alignment process.

Leadership also entangles with the problem of ensuring that people understand the vision. In the literature, employees and other stakeholders do not embrace change easily (Northouse 2007). In this regard, enhancing the credibility of the message being passed is central to the effectiveness of leadership. It is noted that many factors influence the credibility of leaders. For instance, the record of accomplishment of a leader, the message content, the integrity and reputation of the individual, the level of trust followers have on the person, and the consistency demonstrated by the individual are influential.

When doing the alignment, the leadership must empower those involved within the organization (Kotter 1990). Change, such as technological developments, affects operations in organizations. Hence, the leadership needs to oversee the change process by empowering stakeholders. The role of a leader is to reduce the tendency where those involved feel insecure. Such a move would allow them to contribute towards the change process rather than to undermine it.

The Transformation Challenge

Under the transformational leadership theory, inspirational motivation is a significant attribute. The attribute concentrates on the communication of a vision with candidness and confidence positively (Kelloway, Slater & Barling 2000). The researchers indicated that a leader must reenergize followers so that they execute their tasks as expected. The ability of a leader to recognize, describe, delineate, and communicate the mission is critically valuable as is the vision of an organization.

Leaders also encounter a challenge of observing morals and ethics when conducting group affairs (Kelloway, Slater & Barling 2000). By underscoring the values in the vision and motivating followers to chase high standards, leaders are able to enhance the success chances of an organization. The essence of inspirational motivation lies on instilling optimism and enthusiasm with the aim of increasing workers’ encouragement.

Good leadership must focus on individual differences while ensuring that teamwork is not undermined. Thus, the individualized consideration attribute of transformational leadership comes into focus. According to Kelloway, Slater & Barling (2000), a transformational leader must assess followers as individuals to recognize that every person has special goals and abilities. Further, a leader needs to appreciate that personalized attention is necessary within a group set-up. The challenge is to get time to allow for individualized consideration which demands that a leader listens attentively, acknowledges and values each individual’s peculiar contribution, and devises a method to nurture, advise and coach them. The above expectations are difficult to meet given the busy schedules that leaders run. However, an effective leader must take time to exercise the leadership component.

Kelloway, Slater & Barling (2000), also observed that, articulating an inspiring and a compelling vision, communicating performance expectations, exhibiting confidence in followers’ abilities, and practicing role modeling, leadership has the power to influence followers in a positive manner.

The Motivation Challenge

Focusing on the motivation theory is important in understanding the challenges that leadership encounters. A leader is obliged to motivate his/ her followers to move towards the desired direction. Waldman, Ramirez, House & Puranam (2001) indicated that it is necessary to acknowledge that satisfying the needs of workers would be critical in motivating workers/ followers. In this regard, the challenge that a leader has is to identify and address the needs of a worker.
Lewis et al. (2007) acknowledged that motivators vary amongst workers despite the view that money and material rewards are uniform responses to follower needs. Based on the motivation theory by Herzberg, job enrichment can play a motivational function. For McGregor, workers differ. Group X and Y workers required dissimilar leadership styles. Group X requires authoritarian leadership while group Y needs participatory leadership. The implication is that a leader has a challenge of identifying the type of workers he/ she leads.

Mitigating Leadership Challenges

For leadership to attain organizational objectives, there is a need to invest in the training and development of employees (Nielsen, 2015). Through the enhancement of human capital, organizations strengthen their success prospects given that workers have a role to play in performance improvement. It is noted that workers rely on the acquired knowledge and skills to contribute to organizational activities. Leaders need to emphasize individual ability/ skills when seeking to develop the capability of followers (Kouzes & Posner 2002). In this regard, the extent to which leaders enhance the level of self-awareness, self-motivation, and self-regulation among workers is an integral element in the pursuit of performance improvement, which is a measure of leader-effectiveness. For leaders to succeed in this regard, increasing the degree of trust that followers have is critical.

Commitment is a challenge that a leader needs to address. Based on the relational model, commitment is a two-way aspect which requires the parties involved to work towards meeting each other’s needs (Nielsen 2015). For an organization to create value, leaders and followers need to show mutual trust. The leaders show leadership by respecting their followers and trusting in their abilities. They also earn the respect of the followers by demonstrating their knowledge and skills in handling difficult situations. The followers have an obligation to repay the trust of their leaders by expending the necessary efforts to attain the set goals.

For a leader to gain the trust of his subordinates, he/ she must demonstrate a high degree of interpersonal skills (Nielsen 2015). It allows leaders for networking and formation of lasting relations between leaders and followers. Individuals in leadership positions also undertake measures to understand challenges facing them with the aim to help them overcome the problem. In this case, the challenge for leaders is to relate with each worker at an individual level such that it is possible to help them personally. Developing interpersonal competency is a challenging concern for any leadership.

The main components of interpersonal proficiency borders on enhancing social skills (cooperation, collaboration, and conflict management) and social awareness (service orientation, empathy) (Nielsen 2015). In essence, leaders are supposed to assist followers to develop their self-understanding by constructing independent identities. In this regard, leadership is viewed as a strategy that focuses on helping individuals to relate with others, coordinate efforts, enter commitments, and initiate social networks based on self-understanding to improve group outcomes.

Developing workers or creating the necessary conditions for followers to develop requires not only commitment from leaders, but also resources (Nielsen 2015). Thus, leaders are obliged to secure resources to be used in training and reorienting workers. To raise resources is a major challenge that impedes leadership given the hardships involved in such exercises. Nevertheless, sound leadership manages to collect and allocate resources for human resource development. In other quarters, it is arguable that the ability to identify and set aside resources for the development of personnel is a differentiating factor between successful and unsuccessful leaderships.

According to Center for Creative Leadership (CCL) (2009), leadership development needs vary considerably across geographies. For instance, organizations found in the Northern part of Europe have a tendency of deploying sophisticated systems of talent management in managing their programs. Owing to the difference in leadership demands, the CCL deploys experienced personnel to handle programs at the region.


Without a doubt, leadership is a controversial concept. The position is supported by a lack of consensus on its constituents as well as definition. Nevertheless, it is assumed as the process of influence where one party influences another to support a given course. Evidently, leadership is a challenging engagement. Those who occupy the position must devise methods to overcome emerging concerns to achieve success. Leaders must demonstrate decisiveness, inclusivity, vision, attention, and empowerment to inspire their followers. Impressing followers is the best approach towards succeeding in leadership. As the cases of the Konigsbrau Corporation, the American Express and Acer show, sometimes leaders must take unpopular decisions to progress.

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