What makes a great leader and manager?

A thought provoking question. We will all have different thoughts, ideas and experiences that help us to answer this question.

Over the years many Leadership and Management theorists have attempted to define the roles but what is still apparent is that there is no agreed or unequivocal definition.

For me the first thought that comes to mind is that you cannot ‘lead’ without people. You need a path to follow or passion for a cause and an end goal in mind.

You cannot ‘manage’ if there is no task or process or procedure in place to manage.

One definition of Leadership is that it is:

  • The activity of leading a group of people or an organisation, or the ability to do this.

The word ‘ability’ is key for some people in considering this issue.

We all know of people that have a leadership role whom in our view do not have the ability, but we will each have different expectations too.

The leadership approach or ‘style’ that they use will also affect our views.

Are they democratic- using a participative approach, or autocratic – using a controlling and authoritarian approach? You may consider there are times when you would expect or want one of these approaches more than the other?

Leadership is subjective but here are a few traits which some would expect to see in a good leader as defined by Business Dictionary;

Having a clear vision which means knowing what you want for the organisation and being able to share this effectively with your staff so that they want to be part of it and are motivated to follow you willingly.

Being able to set goals with your teams and supporting their progress.

Providing information and knowledge which requires a strong knowledge of the subject area or the business and being able to introduce methods to realize the vision.

Coordinating and balancing when there may be conflicting interests of all staff and stakeholders.

In early years this may be parents, the local authority, government and partnership organisations.

Management on the other hand is an operational role, it’s about getting things done:

  • The organisation and coordination of the activities of the business to achieve defined objectives.

A good manager therefore requires the following skills to be effective in their role:

To be able to plan, control, direct and evaluate.

They need to know what the expectations are from the leader so that they can effectively use the resources. This may include managing the finances, deploying the staff and putting in place processes and policies.

There are many overlaps in responsibilities and in many organisations the leader and manager may be one and the same person.

It’s fair to say that no-one has said it is easy.

Can you do this? If you think you can – how effective are you?

Most leaders and managers agree that you can never stand still, there is always more to know and understand, and even try. No person is the same, no team is the same and no challenge is the same.

To get the best possible outcome, which needs to be clear and agreed before success can be measured, I believe it is best to be able to adapt your approach to suit the situation.

What made me think about this topic right now?

I recently delivered leadership and management training to a group of early years’ nursery and pre-school owners and managers. Most had received no specific training regarding this subject.

The content of the full day’s training, as an associate trainer for a national organisation, reminded me of my very early experiences in the sector.

I was very naïve and found myself in a leadership and management situation with no previous experience or knowledge.

So much of what I was discussing with the delegates resonated with me and I recalled many of the experiences that have provided me with an approach that I can now use far more effectively than I could over 25 years ago when I first entered the sector.

I was reminded of the value of using the Hersey-Blanchard situational leadership theory. Please do not switch off at the mention of ‘theory’, this really is relevant.

When you have worked at a level in ignorance of the theory behind the practice you can reflect and see more obviously where you went wrong.

If I had the knowledge then that I have now, I am sure I would have done a better job. There is of course value in experience but I learnt the hard way!

Situational Leadership Theory

The model suggests that effective leadership is task-relevant AND people relevant. Therefore, to be a successful leader you must adapt your style (see ‘Most Appropriate Leadership Style’ in the table below) to the characteristics of your team, or the individual that you are working with (see ‘Maturity Level in the table below).

This, according to Paul Hersey and Ken Blanchard would provide the best chance of having a positive outcome with the activity, task or job in hand.

‘Maturity Level’ in this model is not about the age of the person but their ability, willingness or experience to take on the task required – each of these elements needs to be considered to help decide which style is the most appropriate to use.

It is also task-specific. A person might therefore be generally skilled, confident and motivated to do their job well, but for the task in question they may lack the skills required. A leader would therefore need to know their team members well to be able to make the decision about the best style to use and in what situation.

Maturity Level Most Appropriate Leadership Style
M1: Low maturity S1: Telling/directing
M2: Medium maturity, limited skills S2: Selling/coaching
M3: Medium maturity, higher skills, but limited confidence S3: Participating/supporting
M4: High maturity S4: Delegating


To put this theory into context:

In more recent times, before becoming an independent early years’ advisor, I worked as a local early years’ lead for an area within Hampshire. One of my roles was to coordinate a multi-disciplinary local development team to instigate an improvement support programme for early years’ providers – I was considered the lead.

On reflection, this was an ideal role to put some of the situational theory around leadership and management into practice.

Team members each had different expertise and skills and were leads in either working with children with special needs, teaching, advising on finance and business issues or on the welfare requirements and safeguarding.

Depending on the specific piece of work, project or task that needed to be carried out, I would be able to select the ‘expert’ within the team in this area of work and using a ‘delegating style’, I knew that this would be the most appropriate style to use rather than trying to tell or direct the team member.

Telling and directing would not be necessary as I knew the team member’s skills and in fact a different approach would have risked undermining their ability and potentially lead to lack of engagement or ownership of the task. Even a lack of willingness to achieve the outcome required; they were capable and willing.

The table below indicates the best ‘style’ (S4) for a team member that has the knowledge, experience and willingness to carry out the task (an M4 level of maturity).

S1: Telling/Directing S2: Selling/Coaching S3: Participating/supporting S4: Delegating
Leader tells and directs (one-way communication) and defines the roles of the individual/team providing the how, what, why, when and where regarding the process/task. Leader still provides the direction but using two-way communication and is in more of a moderating role which will allow the individual or team to buy into the process/task. Leader and individual or team are now sharing the decision-making aspects of how the process/task is completed. The leader is providing less direction whilst maintaining a positive connection with the individual/team. Leader is still involved in the decisions. The process and responsibility however, has been passed to the individual or team. Leader stays involved to monitor progress.


For me there was an added benefit in that it naturally developed a level of respect for what others could do, or bring to any joint projects.

We valued each other’s knowledge and used if for mutual benefit – something that as leaders and managers we should never lose sight of. We cannot possibly be good at everything but we can be better leaders and managers if we recognise and pull on the skills of our team members.

Mother Teresa once said, ‘I alone cannot change the world, but I can cast a stone across the water to create many ripples’.

What did she mean by ‘ripples’ across the water?

Thinking about your teams and the approach that you may need to use with more junior members of staff – you would expect them to be keen and enthusiastic (they may be your ‘ripples’ – growing and developing) but perhaps lack a level of knowledge and skills?

Through ‘selling and coaching’ (S2), you will be influencing and supporting them using open-ended questioning as part of that process to develop two-way communication. Helping to empower them and to take responsibility for their own learning.

Research has shown that loyalty and respect often follows when a person realises that their manager invests in their development, gives them opportunities to grow and acknowledges their achievements and skills.

So, to summarise on the question of what makes a great leader and manager?

In my view, it’s never something you can be on your own. You need people more than they need you, and one should never underestimate the power of sharing expertise and allowing others to shine and to be able to take a lead with something that they are good at.

Whilst compiling this article I came across an interesting view on leading as a team member (up the chain) rather than as a supervisor or manager.

The messages shared may be those that you would like to share with your team? – they reinforce my thoughts that where ever you are on your journey towards becoming a leader and manager (if this is indeed what you aspire to be) you can play a crucial role in the team or the organisation which you are part of – you CAN lead!

Happy reading!

On a final note

There is so much more to know, understand and be aware of in your quest to be the best leader and manager that you can be. I for one am still learning, having started my journey over 25 years ago – watch this space – more to come!