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What is organizational leadership and why is it important?

January 29, 2021 - 13 min read

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What is organizational leadership?

Organizational leadership vs. traditional management

Why is organizational leadership important?

Can you get an organizational leadership degree?

Do you need an organizational leadership degree?

Where can you get a job as an organizational leader?

How to develop yourself as an organizational leader?

Final thoughts on organizational leadership

What is organizational leadership?

Organizational leadership is the ability to lead groups of individuals toward fulfilling an organization's mission. 

It encompasses the following skills:

  • Understanding an organization's mission, in alignment with one's strengths.
  • Creating a strategic plan in line with that mission.
  • Implementing goals and holding teams accountable for accomplishing those goals within an established timeline, and in alignment with the strategic plan.
  • Foreseeing possible challenges in the road ahead.
  • Innovating to meet those challenges.
  • Pivoting effectively as circumstances change.
  • Remaining calm amidst uncertainty.
  • Communicating effectively.
  • Inspiring groups of individuals to do their best and work toward a unified purpose.
  • Addressing the concerns of internal stakeholders and the community at large.
  • Doing all of the above, with an eye on inclusivity, integrity, and authenticity.

The above skills are predicated on the leader's expertise, learned managerial skills, growth mindset, and developed emotional intelligence. They allow the leader to be aware of oneself, their impact on others, and the motivation of others, within the context of furthering the organization's singular mission.


Organizational leadership vs. traditional management

Organizational leadership encompasses a broader scope of responsibility than traditional management. Organizational leadership communicates the mission and vision, establishes the strategic plan, and inspires individuals to put forth their talents to fulfill the goals aligned with the strategic plan and, ultimately, the leader’s vision. 

Traditional management fulfills only part of that overall vision. The manager’s role has been typically to communicate leadership’s direction, set expectations, assign tasks, problem solve, and complete the goals assigned to that particular group.

Why is organizational leadership important? 

Traditional management has been downplayed in recent years as “maintaining” the status quo. With innovation and disruption happening at record speed, management doing things as they’ve always been done is not enough. Organizational leadership is needed at every level to consider how current practices can be further improved or changed to meet future needs.

Organizational leadership is important because it:

  1. Motivates team members. Team members respond in kind to the leader. They will be motivated to mirror the growth mindset for their teams and themselves and consider how they can personally contribute to the forward momentum of the organization as a whole.
  2. Allows for a problem-solving and decision-making mindset. In a psychologically safe atmosphere where people are not afraid to speak up, great ideas can emerge. When a leader entrusts the individuals hired into their roles to develop solutions and make decisions, exponential growth is possible. 
  3. Promotes communication, ethics, inclusion, and respect. The highly emotionally intelligent organizational leader communicates in all ways that every employee's contributions are respected, as every role is vital to the organization's forward movement as a whole. The leader shares the organization's values and models the communication, ethics, inclusion, and respect expected of each individual.
  4. Allows organizational leaders to remain goal-oriented. With individuals empowered to fulfill their roles and develop innovative solutions, the organizational leader may focus on the larger picture: moving the mission forward with an eye on navigating the challenges ahead.

Can you get an organizational leadership degree?

There are multiple degrees in organizational leadership, ranging from bachelor's to doctoral degrees. Here are a few examples:

  • BA, Organizational Leadership
  • BS, Business Leadership
  • Master of Science, Organizational Leadership and Learning
  • Executive Master of Leadership
  • Doctorate of Education, Organizational Change and Leadership
  • Ph.D., Organizational Leadership

However, there are plenty of other degrees that may serve a role in organizational leadership just as well, including

  • BS, Business Administration
  • Master of Business Administration (MBA)
  • Master of Public Administration (MPA)
  • Master of Public Health (MPH)
  • Juris Doctorate (JD)
  • Ph.D., in Management and Organization

Do you need an organizational leadership degree?

In a large organization, a Chief Financial Officer (CFO) will most likely have an MBA from a prestigious university and a track record of working in finance and moving up in leadership roles. A Vice President of Human Resources will most likely have a JD to ensure the requisite knowledge of the multiple employment laws. 

However, plenty of smaller organizations and levels of the organization would not require those same degrees. For instance, a Master of Science in Human Resources may suffice for a mid-tier leadership organizational role or a higher role in a smaller organization. Many experienced professionals pursue a part-time degree, certificate, or executive program to fill in any gaps as they move into leadership roles. 

The options are limitless. The right degree depends on your experience and your career goals. When choosing your leadership development path, consider:

  1. What size organization you’d like to join.
  2. Which level you wish to lead (manager, director, division head, vice president, president, other).
  3. The education levels in the type of company and role you’d like to join.

This information should help determine what education you will need to eventually lead an organization with the requisite knowledge and accumulated managerial and leadership skills.

Where can you get a job as an organizational leader?

Organizational leaders are needed in all sectors: business corporations, technology, health care, government, education, and non-profit organizations. Organizational leadership jobs can be found at various levels of an organization. However, the title will most likely not be “organizational leader.” 

Traditionally, future organizational leaders are first identified as “high potential” employees (HiPos), then proceed to organizational leadership roles with manager and director level titles. Higher-level organizational leadership jobs include titles like Dean, Provost, General Counsel, Chief Financial Officer (CFO), Chief Information Officer (CIO), Chief Operating Officer (COO), Vice President, and President. Roles to consider with potential for growth in organizational leadership include:

  • Human Resources Manager
  • Organization Manager
  • Training & Development Manager
  • Project Manager
  • Sales Representative

Some organizations have started to realize that the process and very notion of identifying a few select “HiPos” can be too narrow and backward-looking. Organizations need more, and more varied, leadership at all levels. Don’t let the fact that you aren’t selected into a high-potential group dissuade you from developing the attributes needed for organizational leadership.

How to develop yourself as an organizational leader?

Some skills are inherent, but great leaders know there is always room for further learning and development. For example:

  • Build your expertise through formal education, internal training opportunities, and mentorship programs.
  • Develop a reputation for taking the lead on teams and having an aptitude for leadership.
  • Develop a reputation for listening and building great, collaborative teams by bringing out the best in everyone.
  • Be clear about your desire to lead. An opportunity may not open right away, but It’s important to stay top of mind in conversations around succession planning. 
  • Create positive working relationships across the organization. Share useful information and resources.
  • Request informational interviews with people who are currently in the leadership roles you aspire to. Ask them what they wish they had known when they were in your shoes.
  • Develop relationships with mentors who can guide you based on their experience and expertise, and with sponsors who can connect you to those who will be vital to your leadership development.
  • Volunteer and be a part of an organization that gathers people from across the organization or multiple organizations. Say "yes" to being on the board and playing a leadership role.
  • Take opportunities for professional development, including a higher education degree that focuses on leadership skills and prepares you to step into an organizational leadership role.

Stay up to date with new resources and insights.


Final thoughts on organizational leadership

There are many more tactical resources that may help you on your journey toward a role in organizational leadership. For instance, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics maintains a database of occupations, the demand, and related salaries, and the O*NET Online database that details the skills requirements of various occupations: You may further explore the roles that interest you on the more user-friendly and visually pleasing RoadTrip Nation. Or, if you’re unclear about the industry sector that best suits you, the Holland Code Career Test offers good exploration and self-reflection. 

Continual development will not only help you achieve an organizational leadership job, but it can also help you continually improve your performance and impact.

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Published January 29, 2021

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