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What is organizational leadership? 10 skills leaders have

Elizabeth Exline

Written by Elizabeth Exline

Kathryn Uhles

Reviewed by Kathryn Uhles, MIS, MSP, Dean, College of Business and IT

An effective organizational leader motivates employees to meet goals

At a glance

  • Organizational leadership focuses on achieving the mission or vision of a company or organization.
  • Effective organizational leadership motivates employees and lower-level managers to meet objectives that ladder up to big-picture goals.
  • Organizational leadership can occur at any level of a company, but careers that best leverage this quality include business managers, general managers, operations managers and facilities managers.
  • Learn leadership and business skills with an MBA.

These days, it seems everybody has an opinion on what makes a good leader. From inspirational observations of the obvious to bulleted lists of skills and qualities, you can’t scroll through your LinkedIn® feed without a reminder that good leaders aren’t just born, they’re made. (Sorry. Couldn’t resist.)

What’s the reason for all this leadership love? It may have something to do with the veritable leadership crisis that’s currently underway. According to the latest findings from the global leadership consulting firm, DDI, strong leaders are on the decline: Only 11% of human resource professionals said they had a strong bench for leadership roles, and 77% of companies cited a leadership gap.

Beyond that, and as the COVID pandemic has brought to new light, effective organizational leadership is vital for changing course on a dime and navigating changing professional landscapes.

All this simply underscores what human resource (HR) departments have long known: It’s not enough to have managers or even leaders. You need strong organizational leadership.

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Organizational leadership definition

What differentiates leaders from organizational leaders boils down to focus. While leaders can be found at every level of an organization, and managers work toward specific goals that play a role in the success of the overall organization, organizational leaders manage people as well as guide them toward mission- and vision-based goals. Their goals are the company’s or organization’s goals — and they leverage their business acumen, emotional intelligence and ethics to create both the initiatives and the company culture that drive success.

To put it another way, organizational leadership develops the umbrella mission that smaller goals ladder up to.

In the real world, this is achieved in a number of ways. Whether an organizational leader is a CEO, a faculty member or a coach, he or she will work to:

  • Establish goals
  • Create action plans to achieve the goals
  • Assign tasks
  • Lead by example (this is where those ethics factor in!)

Done well, organizational leadership can yield significant advantages, from increased productivity to better employee retention (or faculty retention for a university) and improved profits.

Organizational management definition

The differences between organizational management and organizational leadership can be extremely nuanced.

Organizational management refers to those managers who are responsible for meeting an organization’s goals through effective management. 

Organizational leaders focus on both people and goals. They may work to motivate and hold accountable the managers or general employees, but they are also, critically, the ones who help strategize those organizational goals.

Leadership styles

Leadership can feel like an ephemeral concept, but there are actually management styles and tips that break down the science behind the art.

While the number of leadership styles varies depending on which source you consult, the following six examples give an idea of the breadth out there.


Also known as visionary, this style of leadership best captures most people’s idea of what a leader is. They inspire by example, offer choice and input to those they manage, and provide a clear vision for the future. 


This egalitarian approach is good for getting everyone on board with a plan of action. Democratic leaders share information with employees and ask for their thoughts and opinions before making decisions. The payoff? Employees can feel more invested in company success and the work it takes to achieve it.


Ideal for short-term management to meet a certain goal, or for certain entrepreneurs, this leadership style is for driven people looking to meet a goal quickly and maintain a high bar for performance.


Coaching leaders take a people-centric approach that encourages everyone to fulfill his or her potential. Such leaders offer opportunities to identify and grow that potential for a collective win. 


An autocratic leader may take a “my way, or the highway” approach. While such leaders are good decision-makers, especially in time-sensitive situations, they rarely inspire loyalty or a sense of community.


The yin to the yang of autocratic leadership is laissez-faire leadership. This approach invites people to self-govern and provides enough latitude to succeed. The caveat? Such an approach works well with experienced, self-motivated and self-disciplined employees. For anyone else, a laissez-faire manager can appear, at best, aloof and, at worst, incompetent.

How to become an organizational leader

While the term “organizational leader” is more of an idea than a job title, there are still certain pathways to this role

To work as a top executive at any company, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reports that individuals typically need at least a bachelor’s degree and a decent amount of work experience.

College graduates  who decide to pursue additional education, whether it be an online MBA, an in-person doctoral program or something in between, may enjoy both professional and financial advantages.

Online MBA programs cover many of the skills organizational leaders practice, including decision-making, communication, operations and, yes, leadership.

(At University of Phoenix, the MBA program even offers a personalized dashboard experience so students can see which skills they’ve demonstrated competency in and which they have yet to learn.)

An MBA is also a good idea for those who are looking to learn organizational leadership but want a more flexible educational foundation than a degree specifically in organizational leadership.

Organizational leadership skills and traits

So, what makes a good organizational leader? Here are just some of the key organizational leadership skills:

1.    Inspires others: Whether by success or vision, an effective leader will motivate others toward a shared goal.

2.    Builds relationships and develops others: An organizational leader is usually a people person who is good at cultivating connections with others and developing the potential of colleagues and employees.

3.    Communicates effectively: Good communication is critical for conveying both information and inspiration.

4.    Solves problems: Organizational leaders should have strong technical or professional expertise they can leverage to address issues.

5.    Operates ethically: People are always looking for a hero. It’s easier to follow the lead of someone who demonstrates transparency, integrity and honesty in all dealings.

6.    Innovates a strategic plan in line with an organization’s mission: This is what separates organizational leadership from leadership in general.

7.    Implements goals and holds teams accountable: Driving toward success means identifying the goals that ladder up to a mission and getting people to achieve them.

8.    Foresees possible challenges: No matter how well planned, the road to success will inevitably involve a few detours. Good organizational leaders are always strategizing for the next challenge.

9.    Pivots as necessary: And when those challenges are unforeseen, such as the pandemic, an effective leader can pivot effectively.

10. Remaining calm amid uncertainty: In good times and in bad, organizational leaders provide clear, stable direction for others.

Careers in organizational leadership

You don’t have to be a C-suite executive to enjoy a career in organizational leadership. In fact, you don’t even have to be a manager — leadership can occur at any level of an organization.

But for students or graduates interested in both business and management, the following careers all leverage the skills of organizational leadership.

Business manager

Overview: Business managers plan and oversee measures that help their organizations achieve optimal efficiencies. Areas that may fall under their jurisdiction include budgets, marketing, business strategy and personnel.

National salary range: As of May 2023, administrative services managers earned between $60,840 and $169,020, with a median wage of $106,470, according to BLS.

Education requirements: A bachelor’s degree in business or a related field, plus relevant work experience, is typical.

Job outlook: Projected growth of 5% from 2022 to 2032, according to BLS.

Salary ranges are not specific to students or graduates of University of Phoenix. Actual outcomes vary based on multiple factors, including prior work experience, geographic location and other factors specific to the individual. University of Phoenix does not guarantee employment, salary level or career advancement. BLS data is geographically based. Information for a specific state/city can be researched on the BLS website.

BLS Occupational Employment Projections, 2022-2032 is published by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. This data reflects BLS’ projections of national (not local) conditions. These data points are not specific to University of Phoenix students or graduates.

General manager

Overview: General managers are often responsible for multiple departments and may be required to formulate policies and manage daily operations.

National salary range: As of May 2023, general and operations managers earned between $46,340 and $232,110, with a median wage of $101,280, according to BLS.

Education requirements: Most management roles require a bachelor’s degree at minimum.

Job outlook: Considered a 'top executive' role, BLS projects management roles to expect growth of 3% from 2022 to 2032.

Operations manager

Overview: Similar to a general manager, operations managers oversee daily operations for an organization and may plan the use of materials and staffing.

National salary range:  As of May 2023, general and operations managers earned between $46,340 and $232,110, with a median wage of $101,280, according to BLS.

Education requirements: Most management roles require a bachelor’s degree at minimum.

Job outlook: Considered a 'top executive' role, BLS projects management roles to expect growth of 3% from 2022 to 2032.

Building relevant job market skills

Whether in the business world, in the nonprofit realm or at private institutions, organizational leadership can spell the difference between success and failure. And, with an overall decline in qualified leadership, developing the skill set inherent to organizational leadership has never been more important.

If you’re interested in a career in organizational leadership, learn more about online business degree offerings that can help prepare you with the skills necessary to apply for these jobs!

Portrait of Elizabeth Exline


Elizabeth Exline has been telling stories ever since she won a writing contest in third grade. She's covered design and architecture, travel, lifestyle content and a host of other topics for national, regional, local and brand publications. Additionally, she's worked in content development for Marriott International and manuscript development for a variety of authors.

Headshot of Kathryn Uhles


Currently Dean of the College of Business and Information Technology, Kathryn Uhles has served University of Phoenix in a variety of roles since 2006. Prior to joining University of Phoenix, Kathryn taught fifth grade to underprivileged youth in Phoenix.


This article has been vetted by University of Phoenix's editorial advisory committee. 
Read more about our editorial process.

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