Skip to main content

Leadership and the Leader's Purpose

An important part of describing anything is to look at its purpose. This is especially appropriate for leadership.

In exploring leadership purposes, we should first differentiate the terms leader and leadership.

This is because we can understand leadership better when we are not distracted by traditional ideas about what a leader does, and how one behaves, etc.

  1. leader is a person who leads a particular group at a particular time.
  2. Leadership is a much broader and 'multi-dimensional' concept. It is a hugely complex system of effects which strongly influence how a group of people are organized and how they act.

The bigger the group, the situation, and the environment with which the group engages, then the more complex 'Leadership' - as a system of effects - will be.

Leadership is therefore often quite separate from the notion of a single leader of a single group, situation, and time.

  • James Scouller describes leadership as a process. In referring to leadership as a 'process', Scouller means: "...a series of choices and actions around defining and achieving a goal..." 
  • Scouller asserts that if you see it as a process you will more naturally appreciate that 'leadership' and 'the leader' are not one and the same.

Leadership is a process, within which there may be different leaders acting at different times in different situations.

  • Other authors, notably John Adair, also say that leadership does not have to rely on one person.
  • This is a very important notion - that leadership can be shared, and that a leader does not necessarily have to be actively leading all the time.

A leader's responsibility is to ensure that there is appropriate leadership of some sort at all times, but it does not always or necessarily have to be provided by the main leader. Here the 'main leader' refers to the overall ultimate leader of a given group or situation.

Leadership can quite easily be provided and is often better provided, by someone other than the main leader.

What is the Purpose of a Leader?

Leadership purpose can be seen to operate on at least two levels:

  1. Ultimate responsibility ('the buck stops here') - which may not be a direct controlling or active role
  2. Active leadership of a group or situation at a point in time - which may be performed by the main leader or a different person delegated such responsibility.

Note that this can be happening in different areas/projects/situations at the same time, where several people are actively engaged in direct leadership of a group, with very full 'executive' command, i.e., absolute responsibility for decision-making while the ultimate/main leader retains responsibility and accountability for the entire group and wider situation.

Responsibility vs. Accountability

It's appropriate here to explain the differences between responsibility and accountability:

Responsibility usually refers to the performance of a duty or action in making something happen, or perhaps preventing something from happening. 

  • Commonly, responsibility can be delegated, either in broad terms for an area of a project, or in specific terms for a particular task or job element. 
  • Often responsibility requires training and support to be provided to the person responsible. 
  • Responsibility commonly transfers from person to person, or from department to department - for example when a manager takes over a night shift, or a manager goes on holiday or even takes a lunch break. 
  • However, often a responsibility is delegated without proper thought and planning, so the person charged with the duty has little chance of success. Where blame happens in such circumstances it is because a leader is trying to avoid accountability.

Accountability is different from responsibility. Accountability equates to ultimate responsibility. 

  • A common saying that refers to ultimate responsibility is 'the buck stops here' or 'where the buck stops'. True leadership involves accepting accountability, regardless of who is given the responsibility. 
  • Where responsibilities are delegated, which happens frequently where there is good leadership, the good leader retains ultimate responsibility - accountability - for the delegated tasks/responsibilities concerned. 
  • Poor or weak leadership - which we routinely see evidenced in national and corporate governance - tends to try to delegate accountability in addition to responsibility. Good leaders may delegate lots of responsibility, but they never normally delegate accountability, nor seek to pass accountability to others, unless effectively stepping aside for someone to take over the overall job within which the responsibility lies, as in job succession or the creation of a new job role. 
  • Even then, a good leader is unlikely to relinquish ultimate accountability. They accept ultimate responsibility - accountability - for everything within their remit or the range of their job/role. 
  • We might see this instead as a good leader being prepared to take the blame for any faults arising within their full range of responsibilities, even though responsibilities may be delegated far and wide among very many people. 
  • An important point of note is that accountability should not be delegated unless the recipient (of the delegated accountability) has full authority and capability for the responsibilities concerned. 
Accountability is always full and absolute, whereas responsibility may be delegated according to varying degrees of authority.

An interesting yet challenging way to see this is that:

  • A good leader will divert and give credit and praise to others when delegated responsibilities succeed.
  • And where delegated responsibilities fail, the good leader will accept the blame. This is accountability.

Given the deep qualities of good leadership, there is no other viable way.

Corporations and governments habitually ignore this crucial principle of leadership when middle managers or departmental heads are forced to resign or are sacked after a crisis or scandal. Leaders in such situations often fail to take the blame or to accept his/her ultimate responsibility. Watching such events play out in the national or world news offers excellent examples and lessons of the differences between responsibility and accountability, and how these concepts fit into the wider issue of proper leadership.

James Scouller says of the leader's purpose:

  • "The purpose of a leader is to make sure there is leadership - to ensure that all four dimensions of leadership (Scouller's model is explained later) are being addressed... This means the leader does not always have to lead from the front; he or she can delegate, or share part of their responsibility for leadership. However, the buck still stops with the leader. So although the leader can let someone else lead in a particular situation, he or she cannot let go of the responsibility to make sure there is a leadership... For example, the leader has to ensure there is a vision or a goal that all (or at least most) group members want to deliver, but that doesn't mean he or she has to come up with the vision on their own. That is one way of leading, but it's not the only way. Another way is to co-create the vision with one's colleagues."

Sharing Leadership While Retaining Responsibility

Scouller illustrates the principle of 'sharing leadership while retaining responsibility to ensure there is leadership' with the following example (extracted from Scouller's 2011 book, The Three Levels of Leadership):

  • "...Imagine a leader and his team are flying in an aeroplane over the Pacific Ocean, hundreds of miles from civilisation. And imagine the plane crashes on a desert island, leaving only the leader and team members as survivors. The leader calls the team together and says, 'Now look, none of us knows how long we'll be here, and I don't have any experience of emergencies like this. Have any of you learnt survival skills to keep us alive while we figure out how to attract attention for a rescue?' Let's say Jack, one of the team members steps forward and replies, 'Yes, I was in the Army Reserve and trained in survival techniques.' So the leader says, 'Okay Jack, you take charge for the moment. What do we have to do first?..' "

Scouller continues: 

  • "On this island, you can see that the leader realised someone else was better qualified to lead at that moment. So he delegated leadership of the survival challenge to Jack, and played the role of follower, but note that he didn't neglect or delegate his fundamental responsibility to ensure there was leadership. In due course, the group's challenges would have changed, and the leader would judge whether to resume direct control or delegate to someone else."


James Scouller Biography

We are grateful to James Scouller for his help, patience, and expert contribution to producing this leadership guide.

James Scouller is an expert coach and partner at The Scouller Partnership in the UK, which specialises in coaching leaders. He was chief executive of three international companies for eleven years before becoming a professional coach in 2004. He holds two postgraduate coaching qualifications and training in applied psychology at the Institute of Psychosynthesis in London.

James Scouller's book is called "The Three Levels of Leadership: How to Develop Your Leadership Presence, Know-how and Skill" which was published in May 2011.