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Developing Leadership Capabilities

Updated: Jan 28

“Good leaders must first become good servants.”

Robert K. Greenleaf.

Developing Leadership Capabilities

Different definitions have been given to leadership, the action or ability to lead a group of people or organisation. Although I generally accept the view that a leader is an individual in possession of authority and influence, I do believe that this influence is situation specific. Furthermore I believe that an individuals personal definition and style of leadership develops over time; while I may have previously shown absolute commitment to an organisation or service, over time I have aspired to display greater similarities with Greenleaf’s (1977) definition of servant leadership, by putting team members at the centre of my focus through concentrating upon their development.

My leadership style may have been influenced by the variety of environments in which I have gained leadership experience, having led in both the public and private sectors, and in elite sport over the course of the past twenty years. Following a period of time in sport, I gained great leadership experience during my military career, particularly in a style appropriate to the command and control context in which I operated. Following this, I initially led commercial teams offering coaching and leadership training and was approached by a number of organisations and public services to talk about my own experiences, particularly the effects that the challenges posed by acquired disabilities have had upon my own approach to leadership. I observed dramatic changes to my leadership style over the period that coincided with coaching other leaders and managers. I believe that my management positions within the private sector and the deep self-reflection that took place in the course of designing and presenting personal experiences and learning packages to audiences had a great influence upon my personality and subsequently my leadership offerings. This was further emphasised during my leadership of change management projects within a Civil Service, undergoing transformation.

The change projects I led posed a number of complex challenges; logistical, financial and cultural. The latter challenge and the potential impacts upon employees roles has been the most prevalent issue for the majority of my work over recent years, testing my ability to communicate with individuals and teams during times of great uncertainty. These projects focused upon assessing and developing new systems of work including hierarchical structures within organisations, in an effort to improve the performance of an organisation or service. The importance of a number of leadership capabilities became clear during such work; the ability to effectively lead teams, to lead organisational change and crucially to communicate assertively to individuals, teams and external stakeholders. Each capability has a direct impact upon team performance and the subsequent performance of an organisation.

Leading Teams

Accepting that leaders may hold positions allowing them to define team goals and to direct their actions, the process of leading a team involves motivating and developing individuals, and monitoring and guiding teams in order to achieve objectives. This leadership capability comprises a number of aspects of good leadership; cultural awareness, self-awareness, emotional intelligence and communication skills. High levels of self-awareness enable people to manage verbal and non-verbal communication styles appropriately. A simple example can include adopting an open body posture with arms and hands, attempting to adopt a welcoming facial expression and by using words, similar to those commonly used by members of the audience in order to encourage the development of a rapport. I believe that making a conscious effort to improve communications with teams, aspiring to provide support and guidance is closely aligned to Greenleaf’s (1969; 1977) view of servant leadership.

Leading Change

The concepts of change and change management have received great focus in recent years (Soparnot, 2011). Radical adjustments in global markets, challenging financial climates and the rapid rate of technological advances have forced organisations to adapt in order to remain effective and competitive. A number of definitions for the process of leading change exist including Rothwell et al. (2009) who describe it as a means of “helping a person, group or organisation change”. Kudray and Kleiner’s (1997, p. 18) definition of change management is of “ the continuous process of aligning an organization with its marketplace and doing it more responsively and effectively than competitors”. A fundamental aspect of leading change is to understand the existing situation, the envisaged future state and the impact that the changes will have upon the individuals involved. In addition to these descriptions, change is an activity that may offer opportunities for those not commonly associated with leadership, to demonstrate leadership abilities. This is closely aligned to my own view of leadership being situation specific. To support individuals to lead change, Kotter (2007) has produced a model with eight defined steps a leader should follow in order to assist in its successful implementation. In terms of the skills required to lead positive change in particular, individuals benefit from the ability to inspire others. Crucially, I believe that individuals responsible for leading change must recognise and utilise existing work cultures as much as possible, in order to gain support rather than encourage resistance to the adjustments. As outlined by Kotter (1995), this facilitates the formation of a strong coalition and supports the construction of a strategic vision, which attracts supporters for the change, described by Kotter (1995) as a 'volunteer army'. Each of these eight stages assists in overcoming barriers to change.

Communicating Assertively

Communication is a fundamental aspect of effective leadership; research has indicated that seventy to ninety percentage of leaders time is spent engaged in communication (Mitzberg, 1973; Eccles and Nohria, 1991). In response to this, great emphasis has been placed within leadership training upon the development of the ability to communicate assertively. This style communicates confidently and appropriately, without appearing rude or hostile. Teams view leaders as competent communicators when they respect individuals, treat people as equals and provide opportunities for others to interact and express opinions in communications (Anderson and Martin, 1995). This assertive communicative approach and the positive impacts upon team morale associated with it, may result in improved leadership and therefore operational success.

Communication is central to my personal definition of leadership; the ability to direct individuals to perform roles, particularly during times of extreme stress, is the greatest determinant of team and organisational success or failure. Leaders should develop the ability to adopt communication styles appropriate to audiences in order to support team success. For example, an authoritarian approach to leadership may be appropriate in situations requiring high levels of command and control. The time pressure involved in combat operations does not readily provide opportunities for team members to voice their opinions in line with Anderson and Martin’s (1995) definition of assertive communication. In contrast, the same leader may encourage two-way discourse and feedback from reports in different situations. Alongside verbal encouragement by directly asking for others opinions following the direction of work procedures, leaders may use appropriate non-verbal communication methods such as maintaining eye contact and open body postures, leaning forward and nodding to encourage the verbal contributions of individuals. In addition to reinforcing verbal messages, these methods may encourage a positive affect with work reports. In addition to encouraging their adherence to work requests, each positive communication experience reinforces the cohesiveness and rapport of teams; this is crucial during periods of increased pressure. This can encourage the sharing of best practice and provide employees with the confidence to advise leaders and managers of any issues or threats to team performance, therefore supporting team success.


Different leadership experiences will provide opportunities for individuals to gain both theoretical and applied leadership experience with teams varying in size. Both leaders and team members should be encouraged to seek opportunities for exposure to different environments and different audiences, in order to develop a broad skill set, preparing them to lead and perform


Anderson, C. M. and Martin, M. M. (1995) ‘Communication motives of assertive and responsive communicators’. Communication Research Reports, 12(2), 186-191.

Eccles. R. G. and Nohria, N. (1991) Beyond the hype: Rediscovering the essence of management. Boston: Harvard Business School Press.

Greenleaf, R. K. (1977) Servant Leadership: A journey into the nature of legitimate power and greatness. New York: Paulist Press.

Kotter, J. P. (1995) ‘Leading change: Why transformation efforts fail’. Harvard business review, 73(2), 59-67.

Kotter, J. (2007) ‘Leading change: Why transformation efforts fail’. Harvard Business Review, 85 (1), 96-103.

Kudray, L. M., and B. H. Kleiner. (1997) ‘Global trends in managing change’. Industrial Management, 39 (3), 18-20.

Mintzberg, H. (1973) The nature of managerial work. New York: Harper & Row.

Rothwell, W. J., Stavros, J. M., Sullivan, R. L. and Sullivan, A. eds. (2009) Practicing organization development: A guide for leading change (Vol. 34). Chichester, UK: John Wiley & Sons.

Soparnot, R. (2011) ‘The concept of organizational change capacity’. Journal of Organizational Change Management, 24(5), 640-661.

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