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What is Organizational Leadership?

Organizational leadership is a management approach in which leaders help set strategic goals for the organization while motivating individuals within the group to successfully carry out assignments in service to those goals.
A group of men and women sitting in a circle and talking about what organizational leadership is

The company CEO, army general, political party leader, school superintendent, department head, team coach — these are but a few examples representing one of the fundamental components of organizational leadership. Inside of every organization, there must be a person responsible for directing or guiding the group.

According to the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES),  organizational leadership "focuses on leadership skills that can be applied to a business, government, non-profit or educational setting." But what distinguishes an organizational leader (OL) from, say, a functional manager or an executive with other leadership qualities?

Dr. Linda Ellington with the text Dr. Linda EllingtonThe key difference is that organization leaders combine business understanding with their roles as “future visionaries and forward-thinkers who lead broad initiatives using integrity and ethics,” according to Dr. Linda Ellington, faculty lead for organizational leadership at Southern New Hampshire University (SNHU).

Organizational leadership, then, is a management approach in which leaders help set strategic goals for the organization while motivating individuals within the group to successfully carry out assignments in service to those goals.

What are Examples of Organizational Leadership Skills?

“You have to be people-oriented,” said Dr. Lowell (Chris) Matthews, associate professor of organizational leadership at SNHU. “Organizational leadership is about leading and managing individuals toward achieving a strategic organizational goal. So, an OL is a change-agent, someone who sees the big picture but also understands the processes or steps to making change happen.”

How to Become a Manager, MBA Jobs

It’s one thing to learn about a subject. But can the essential skills and mindsets of organizational leadership be learned? According to Ellington, these include a variety of soft skills, such as:

  • Communicating (especially listening) effectively
  • Problem-solving and decision-making
  • Relationship- and team-building
  • Using integrity and ethics

Other necessary OL skills Ellington noted include:

  • Developing leadership potential in others
  • Identifying future innovations and opportunities
  • Spreading the organization’s vision and inspiring others to share in that vision
  • Thinking strategically, system-wide, and holistically
  • Understanding your business environment and operations

You might also explore topics related to business psychology or organizational psychology while studying human behavior within institutions.

“People are not empty vessels,” Ellington said. “They have unique experiences, talents and knowledge.” And if they have the drive, commitment and passion to learn about organizational leadership, “we can teach them those OL skills and mindsets while also sprinkling in the business understanding,” she said.

Of course, some people learn these skills through real-world experiences. Yet the benefit of an education, either at the bachelor's or master's level, is the chance to study theories about motivation, strategy and leadership, and then put those theories into practice without the same level of risk.

Dr Lowell (Chris) Matthews with the text Dr Lowell (Chris) Matthews“After all, the practice is when you make mistakes — and we all make mistakes,” said Ellington. “The difference is that in an education setting, no one is going to get fired or lose their company or go into debt. We provide a safe sandbox or playground for our students to try simulations and develop confidence in their abilities.”

Ideally, theory and practice go hand in hand. “The analogy that I use for my students is that of a medical doctor who goes to medical school and obtains their degree,” said Matthews. “They know the theory, but until they start practicing medicine with patients, the theory only gets you so far.” Conversely, of course, patients generally want a doctor who also has the theoretical training, not just medical knowledge that comes from learning “by doing.”

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Why Choose a Career in Organizational Leadership?

Deborah Gogliettino with the text Deborah Gogliettino “If your goal is to influence people and impact the organization at the highest level possible, then you want to learn about organizational leadership,” said Deborah Gogliettino, associate dean of business programs at SNHU.

Matthews agreed. “A person with a degree in organizational leadership can be expected to fill a management or leadership role in an organization that has to constantly be prepared for change,” he said. “These roles may be in human resources or more supervisory positions that are industry-specific. The good thing about OL is that it’s needed for all types of organizations.”

These include organizations, businesses, and enterprises in the:

  • Centralized and decentralized institutions
  • For-profit and not-for-profit realms
  • New start-ups and global conglomerates
  • Public and private sectors

As a result, it’s possible for organizational leaders “to work in places that fit who they are in terms of their core values,” said Gogliettino.

The other potential benefit of work in this field is with regard to compensation. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), the median annual salary for management occupations was $107,360 in 2022, which was the highest wage of all the major occupational groups.* Most of these occupations require at least a bachelor's degree, BLS reports, but some aspiring leaders choose to earn an advanced degree to improve their employment prospects.

Christopher McGinnis with the text Christopher McGinnis"After being passed over for leadership positions, I decided I needed to improve my marketability and increase my chances of advancement." said Christopher McGinnis '23G.

That's when he decided to earn his master's in organizational leadership from SNHU.

Less than a year into the program, McGinnis said he got promoted to the role he had been applying for before starting his degree. "It has helped me advance within my career and current organization, and hopefully it will lead to further opportunities that I may not have had access to or the background to consider," he said.

You could earn an online degree at your own pace in tandem with your current role, too, to build upon your workplace skills and experience.

While some jobs have “organizational leader” in the title, more often than not, OL isn’t the title on your employee ID, according to Ellington. Instead, she said, “it’s the mindset, the talent, the love of people and the courage and desire to drive and influence change. An OL has the ability to look wider and deeper, and to bring an advanced skillset to (a) company’s decision-making and strategic thinking.”

Gogliettino noted the OL is a person in a position of influence. “That can be an HR person or someone in benefits, it could be an administrator for a not-for-profit or a small business owner." she said. "There are lots of titles for which a person could be the OL. The real question is: Does this job or position help the organization move forward?”

Looking ahead, Gogliettino said the job and career prospects in organizational leadership are “constant and long-term. There is always going to be a need for skilled organizational leaders – today, tomorrow, and afterward. Organizations will always embrace someone who can bring a vision, especially one of growth and sustainability. That’s a trend I don’t ever see going away."

Discover more about SNHU’s online organizational leadership degree: Find out what courses you'll take, skills you’ll learn and how to request information about the program.

*Cited job growth projections may not reflect local and/or short-term economic or job conditions and do not guarantee actual job growth. Actual salaries and/or earning potential may be the result of a combination of factors including, but not limited to: years of experience, industry of employment, geographic location, and worker skill.

Sofia Tokar is a freelance copywriter and editor in higher education. Follow her on X, formally known as Twitter @stokar or connect on LinkedIn.

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About Southern New Hampshire University

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SNHU is a nonprofit, accredited university with a mission to make high-quality education more accessible and affordable for everyone.

Founded in 1932, and online since 1995, we’ve helped countless students reach their goals with flexible, career-focused programs. Our 300-acre campus in Manchester, NH is home to over 3,000 students, and we serve over 135,000 students online. Visit our about SNHU page to learn more about our mission, accreditations, leadership team, national recognitions and awards.