Leadership – Well Criticised than Well Understood

The success of any organization depends on its leadership. Although a good deal of research has been done on leadership, it is difficult to say what it is (Rastogi, 1987). Investment in leadership education and development by corporation became increasingly popular, reaching more than $50 billion across the world in 2000 (Ready & Conger, 2003). Yet, the advice given to managers about leadership and leader development is often overly complex and sometimes contradictory (Sleeth & Johnston, 1996).

Leadership is one of the most complex and multifaceted phenomena to which organizational and psychological research has been applied. While the term “leader” was noted as early as the 1300s and conceptualized even before biblical times, the term leadership has been in existence only since the late 1700s (Stogdill, 1974). Even then, scientific research on the topic did not begin until the twentieth century (Bass B. M., 1985). Since that time, however, there has been intensive research on the subject. Indeed, Bennis (1959) states that, “Of all the hazy and confounding areas in social psychology, leadership theory undoubtedly contends for the top nomination. And, ironically, probably more has been written and less known about leadership than about any other topic in the behavioral sciences” (p 259). Burns (1978) similarly remarks that, “Leadership is one of the most observed and least understood phenomena on earth.” This problem arises not only in understanding the operation of the theory but even in its definition. Stogdill (1974) claims that, “There are almost as many definitions of leadership as those who have attempted to define the concept.”

Leadership – Failed Approach

The insights into motion and the structure of the universe that we associate with Galileo Galilei, and the understandings of light and gravity that emanated from Isaac Newton, created a body of knowledge that continues to accumulate at an ever accelerating rate. In the biological sciences, a similar trend has occurred in the past 150 years, building on Charles Darwin’s formulations about evolution and the ensuing discoveries of Gregor Mendel, James Watson, and Francis Crick in genetics. While slight differences may obtain in how these sciences are practiced across different labs, countries, or continents, essentially there is only one mathematics, one physics, one chemistry, one biology.

Having solved major mysteries about the physical and the biological worlds, scientists and technologists have more recently turned their attention to the understanding of the human mind and brain. More knowledge about psychology and neuroscience has been accrued in the past fifty years than in all prior historical eras combined. We now have well-developed, empirically based theories of intelligence, problem solving, and creativity—along with the tools, software, and hardware based on these scientific advances. Educators, professionals, managers, and leaders in business need to be cognizant of what has been established, and what may soon be established, about the nature, workings, potentials, and constraints of the human mind (Gardner, 2008).

Despite that, attempts to analyze leadership tend to fail because the would-be analyst misconceives his task. He usually does not study leadership at all. Instead he studies popularity, power, showmanship, or wisdom in long-range planning. Some leaders have these things, but they are not of the essence of leadership. Leadership is the accomplishment of a goal through the direction of human assistants. The man who successfully marshals his human collaborators to achieve particular ends is a leader. A great leader is one who can do so day after day, and year after year, in a wide variety of circumstances. He may not possess or display power, force or the threat of harm may never enter into his dealings. He may not be popular, his followers may never do what he wishes out of love or admiration for him.

He may not ever be a colorful person; he may never use memorable devices to dramatize the purposes of his group or to focus attention on his leadership. As for the important matter of setting goals, he may actually be a man of little influence, or even of little skill; as a leader he may merely carry out the plans of others. His unique achievement is a human and social one which stems from his understanding of his fellow workers and the relationship of their individual goals and the group goal that he must carry out. It is not hard to state in a few words what successful leaders do that make them effective. But it is much harder to tease out the components that determine their success. Crude forms of leadership rely solely on single sources of satisfaction such as monetary rewards or the alleviation of fears about various kind of insecurity. The task is adhered to because following orders will lead to paycheck, and deviation will lead to unemployment. Human beings are not machines with a single set of push buttons (Prentice, 1961).

Despite many thousands of theoretical and empirical studies, leadership remains a tantalizing enigma for thinkers and practitioners. Despite many thousands of studies there are still no generally agreed definitions, and the mountains of accumulated data and ideas seem to have brought us no nearer to a detailed understanding of what the concept means. If the copious leadership literature reveals a consistent theme, it is the lack of effort toward integration. While generalized definitions and disparate theories abound, it is difficult to find a useful operational definition and an integrative framework of leadership (Muczyk & Adler, 2002). They argue that to present a coherent and unified scheme of leadership, several vexing issues need to be  addressed. First, leadership has been discussed at various level of abstraction, from the “Great Man/Woman” approach to micro leader behaviors, and every level in between.

Second, some leadership theories are of a normative variety (one best leadership approach for all situations) while others are of a situational or contingency character (leadership styles fashioned to suit the attributes of the leader, characteristics of subordinates, and circumstances of the situation).

Third, leadership construct has been disaggregated into different constituent components by different theorists, and reconciliation would be most welcome.

Fourth, the whole controversy of whether or not leaders are born versus made needs to be confronted. Fifth, what are the substitutes for leadership, and when is leadership important?

Sixth, just how much of leadership construct overlaps other organizational behavior constructs, and what to do about it? They went on to add that most of the leadership studies have been conducted on ad hoc groups. It may be that results from these studies should not be generalized to leadership in actual organizations, where leaders hold their positions for much longer and the consequences of leader behavior are much more serious.

Various camps are concerned with important but entirely difficult aspects of leadership. Each camp, however, represents the dimension of leadership with which it is preoccupied as a complete leadership theory. Such a practice leads to superficial contradictions in the same way that one blind man’s description of the trunk of the elephant differs from another blind man’s description of an elephant’s belly.

Students are confronted with the issue that if leadership is a competency, that is, if leadership can be learned, then which theories make the most sense to learn and how can these theories then be taught as foundations for decisions affecting leadership behavior and actions, leadership theories would have little value if they could not be applied to real world situations (Armandi, Oppedisano, & Sherman, 2003).

It is becoming increasingly clear that experience is the best teacher of leadership. In an Accenture study of leaders under the age of 35 and over the age of 70, entrepreneurs, corporate executives, social activists and elected politicians unanimously agreed that they had learned more about leading from real work and life experiences than from leadership development courses or MBA programs. They credited the latter with helping them become more competent technically, but they argued that formal programs do little to help people learn fundamental lessons or how to extract wisdom from experience (Vey, Stergios, & Thomas, 2005).

Leadership – Criticizing Different Approach

In scholarly circles, the term leadership studies has often been used to connote a rather narrow corpus of social sciences analysis, chiefly from the fields of social psychology and management sciences. Such studies have contributed mightily to our understanding of leadership, yet they are limited in scope and purpose. On the other hand, the recent popularity of leadership has spurred an outpouring of publications in the trade press. These popular treatments are almost invariably simplistic and shallow. Wren, Hicks, & Price (2004) said that leadership is a universal component of the human condition. It is the process by which and though which groups, organizations, and societies seek to achieve their perceived and objectives (pg. xi).

Through the years, our view of what leadership is and who can exercise it has changed considerably. Leadership competencies have remained constant, but our understanding of what is it, how it works, and the ways in which people learn to apply it has shifted. Decades of academic analysis have given us more than 850 definitions of leadership. Literally thousands of empirical investigations of leaders have been conducted in the last seventy-five years alone, but no clear and unequivocal understanding exists as to what distinguishes leaders from nonleaders, and perhaps more important, what distinguishes effective leaders from ineffective leaders and effective organizations from ineffective organizations.

Never have so many labored so long to say so little. Multiple interpretations of leadership exist, each providing a sliver of insight but each remaining incomplete and wholly inadequate explanation. Most of these definitions don’t agree with each other, and many of them would seem quite remote to the leaders whose skills are being dissected. Definitions reflect fads, fashions, political tides and academic trends. They don’t always reflect reality and sometimes they just represent nonsense. It’s as if what Braque once said about art is also true to leadership: “The only thing that matters in art is the part that cannot be explained.” (pg. 4). Like love, leadership continued to be something everyone knew existed but nobody could define. Many other theories of leadership have come and gone. Some looked at the leader. Some looked at the situations. None has stood the rest of time (Bennis & Nanus, 1985).

According to Bennis (1959), “Probably more has been written and less known about leadership than any other topc in the behavioral sciences”. Leadership continues to be an ambiguous concept (Pfeffer, 1977). Indeed, seven decades of research on the subject has led Stogdill to conclude that the “endless accumulation of empirical data has not produced an integrated understanding of leadership. Rather than condenming the current multiple paradigm approach to leadership and searching for a single grand theory, perhaps what is needed is more concpetual work concerning the exact domain of existing leadership theories.

That is, although a given theory may not be able to be all things to all people, it  may provide a valuable framework for dealing with certain aspects of the phenomenon in question (McElroy, 1982). Some leadership theories seek to clarify the construct of leadership by examining what leadership consists of (e.g. traits, behaviors). Others are more concerned with the process of leadership; that is, how leaders decide what action to take and the impact of those actions on others (e.g. the path goal model).

A typical CEO of a major firm might interact on a typical day with 20 out of, say, 50,000 employees. That being the reality, there is no way that such a person through personal contact – a daily reality in small firms – can influence or lead people directly (Kotter J. , 1998). We have developed generations of executives who know much more about management than they do about leadership (Kotter J. , 1998). In studies of leadership behavior, there has historically been a belief of a universal manager who could adapt to any situation (Bass B. M., 1985).

From time to time the amelioration if not the actual solution to humanity’s various problems and challenges are perceived as best placed in the hands of exceptional individuals. It is argued here that while there are many passing references to strategic, top-level leaders and the vital importance of top leadership, much of the actual activity – and indeed the larger part of the analytical effort – has in fact been devoted to leadership and its attempted development at lower levels (Storey, 2005). Zaccaro & Horn (2003) have noted, theories and models of leadership tend to assume that the processes of leadership are the same at higher and lower levels. Their assessment was that less than 5 percent of the leadership literature has focused on executive leadership. And the overwhelming focus on lower level leadership in the various studies has also been confirmed by others (Day & Lord, 1988).

Leadership occurs in situation and cannot be distilled into a number of constituent elements (other than perhaps for descriptive processes) (Bolden, Wood, & Gosling, 2006). Continuing the musical metaphor, a competency framework could be considered like sheet music, a diagrammatic representation of the melody. It is only in the arrangement, playing and performance, however, that the piece truly comes to life. Simply being able to read music or play particular notes does not make someone an excellent musician and nor does one’s ability to play solo necessarily ensure that they can be an effective member of a group or orchestra. Likewise being a successful classical musician, for example, is no guarantee that someone will be able to transfer their talent to different musical genres such as jazz, folk or rock.

Thus, while a competency framework may be a useful guide to how the melody may sound, if we focus too closely on the written music we may miss the most interesting and significant features of the performance, producing only sterile renditions devoid of emotion (Bolden & Gosling, 2006). Pondy (1978) calls leadership a ‘language game’ whereby, through the effective use of rhetoric and ‘framing’ (Conger, 1991; Fairhurst, 2005; Fairhurst & Sarr, 1996), leaders can shape the understanding of others (often termed ‘followers’). Bennis (1993) proposes that ‘effective leaders put words to the formless longings and deeply felt needs of others. They create communities out of words’. Likewise, Cuno (2005) proposes that ‘one often hears that leaders lead through action, by example. But more often, and often more effectively, leaders lead through their words, by acts of speech, as it were’.

For the better part of the 20th century, the impact of the rationalistic and mechanistic perspective was very strong in both leadership theory and practice (Tsoukas & Cummings, 1997; Weick, 1969). Over time, insistence on objective standards and strict rules was replaced by unconventional and creative approaches. Contingency theories (Fiedler F. , 1964; Hunt & Osborn, 1982; Vroom, 1964; Vroom & Yetton, 1973; Yukl, 1989) linked the leader’s skills with the demands of a particular situation. Transactional and exchange theories (Kelley & Thibaut, 1978) on the other hand, are concerned with the leader–follower relationships. Cognitive approaches (Shaw & Costanzo, 1982) shed light on perception and judgment.

Visionary leadership is necessary but not a sufficient condition. One requires set of difficult choices to make, pursue opportunities in the most competitive markets of the world, willingness to learn and critically invest in developing the requisite competencies. The pattern of engaging with the most competitive markets of the world and display of the willingness to learn and invest in building the necessary competencies is discernible across this new genre of companies (Ramachandran, Khorakiwala, Rao, Khera, Dawar, & Kalyani, 2004).

Bolman & Deal (1997) advocated that successful leaders consider the broader view of the context in which they work. When determining success or effectiveness of leader, if we were to focus only on the leader who may be perceived as ineffective, overlooking the many tensions and dynamics interacting to create this perception of the “ineffective leader,” we would not be considering all pertinent information and we would not have taken the broad view of contextual factors into consideration.

A major problem in research and theory on effective leadership has been the lack of agreement about which behavior categories are relevant and meaningful for leaders. It is very difficult to compare and integrate sets of behavioral categories. There has been a bewildering proliferation of taxonomies on leadership behavior (Bass B. , 1990, Yukl, 2002). Sometimes different terms have been used to refer to the same type of behavior. At other times, the same terms has been defined differently by various theorists. What is treated as a general behavior category by one theorist is viewed as two or three distinct categories by another theorist. What is a key concept in one taxonomy is absent from another. Different taxonomies have emerged from different research disciplines, and it is difficult to translate from one set of concepts to another (Yukl, Gordon, & Taber, 2002). Yukl, Gordon, & Taber (2002) noted that in the past there has been an overemphasis on metacategories. For example, much of the research during the 1960s and 1970s used measures of consideration and initiating structure, rather than examining results for specific components of these broadly-defined behaviors. The metacategories are useful for organizing specific behaviors with a similar objective, but they should examine results for the specific behaviors as well as the metacategories in the same study. The utility of metacategories will depend on the extent to which they are able to improve the prediction of leadership effectiveness or the explanation of why some leaders are more effective than others in a given situation.

In an effort to capture some of the complexity, leadership scholars and practitioners since about 1910 have tried to develop reality based understanding of leadership in groups, organizations, and societies. There has been great deal of fumbling. On the surface, these attempts to define leadership have been confusing, varied, disorganized, idiosyncratic, muddled, and according to conventional wisdom, quite unrewarding. These scholars have not provided a definition of leadership that is (1) clear, (2) concise, (3) understandable by scholars and practitioners, (4) researchable, (5) practically relevant, and (6) persuasive. In issuing such challenges, these people are calling for a new school of leadership. They are involved in a paradigm shift which changes out understanding of leadership so that it makes sense in a postindustrial world (Rost, 1991).

Organizational Leadership

However, no consistent, direct correlation has been demonstrated between leadership and improved organizational effectiveness (Fiedler F. , 1973). Still, leadership continues to be one of the most extensively researched social influence variables. A large assortment of different theoretical frameworks has been developed to identify component elements of leadership. Despite the level of interest and the proliferation of leadership theories and research, the fundamental problem of operationalizing leadership still is not being solved (Davis & Luthans, 1979). Pondy (1976) commented that have we been misled by the existence of a single term in our language to think that it reflects some uniform reality? Calder (1977)also pointed out that in the progression from the trait approach to complex transactional-contingency views, leadership has taken on such expanded meaning that it can not be differentiated from any other general model of behavior.

An increasing number of behavioral scientists agree that leadership, in some way, involves the exercise of influence; but what this influence is, and how it is to be achieved, is subject to wide-ranging interpretation. A major problem is that leadership is seldom directly observed but is merely perceived and conferred (Davis & Luthans, 1979). As Schriesheim & Kerr (1977) conclude after their extensive examination of the validity of the major instruments that purport to measure aspects of leadership:”the leadership area is today without any instruments of demonstrated validity and reliability (p. 33) and add:”…data from numerous studies collectively demonstrate that in many situations leader behaviors are irrelevant.”  Much of the research has not been helpful precisely because it has neglected the observation of real events and focused on instead on questionnaire response. Many of the terms contained leadership questionnaire may describe commonly held feelings of leadership and subordinates but not necessarily describe the behavioral contingencies that control desired performance outcomes (Davis & Luthans, 1979).

The Fortune magazine said, “Forget your old tired old ideas about leadership. The most successful corporation of the 1990s will be something called a learning organization.” As a world becomes more interconnected and businesses become more complex and dynamic, work must become more learningful. It is no longer sufficient to have one person learning for the organization, a Ford or a Sloan or a Watson. It’s just not possible any longer to figure it out from the top, and have everyone else following the orders of the grand strategist. The organizations that will truly excel in the future will be organizations that discover how to tap people’s commitment and capacity to learn at all levels in an organization (Senge, 1990). And, probably, that makes the job of leader more interesting and challenging.

Most organizations have a leadership deficit because they ignore leadership potential and don’t offer training or relevant role models. In fact, we need more leaders who can help groups come up with visions that aren’t self-serving – visions that serve entire enterprise (Kotter J. , 2005).

Ready & Conger (2007) conducted a survey of human resources executives from 40 companies around the world in 2005, and virtually all of them indicated that they had an insufficient pipeline of high-potential employees to fill strategic management roles. The problem is that, while companies may have talent processes in place (97% of respondents said they have formal procedures for identifying and developing their next-generation leaders), those practices may have fallen out of sync with what the company needs to grow or expand into new markets. More than half the specialists who took part in our research had trouble keeping top leaders’ attention on talent issues. Senior line executives may vigorously assert that obtaining and keeping the best people is a major priority—but then fail to act on their words.

Another line of criticism of the heroic theme has been provided by writers such as Mintzberg (1999), who strongly challenge the concept of leadership residing in one individual, and contributing uniquely to organizational success, asserting that leadership, and importantly, learning from experience, is distributed throughout the organization. Stacey (1999) articulates the dangers of perpetuating the notion of leadership relating to ‘special powers’ of certain individuals:  the myth that organizations have to rely on one or two unusually gifted individuals to decide what to do, while the rest enthusiastically follow . . . [encourages] cultures of dependence and conformity that actually obstruct the questioning and complex learning which encourages innovative action.

In recent years, the need to develop next-generation leaders — people who can translate strategy into results and core values into   day-today behaviors — has become the paramount challenge for many chief executives and their top teams. But even though this issue has risen to the top of the agenda, most executives would be the first to admit that they are failing at the effort. And that’s a significant admission, because they would also concur that their leadership “inventory” is woefully insufficient. Unprecedented advances in information technology and jolting demographic changes revealed the scarcity of technical and leadership talent (Ready, 2002).

For the past couple of decades, companies have focused on creating strong leaders of business units and influential heads of functions — men and women responsible for achieving results in one corner of an organization. But they have not paid as much attention to a more important challenge: developing leaders who see the enterprise as a whole and act for its greater good. And that perspective has become increasingly necessary as companies seek to provide not just products but broad-based customer solutions. It is imperative, then, for companies to be able to identify and develop enterprise leaders — people who can deliver differentiated value by bringing the total resources of their companies to their customers. In order to link strategy to leadership development, they must be able to answer three questions:What are the key elements of the enterprise leader’s job? Why is learning to lead at the enterprise level such a difficult challenge? And what can companies do to identify and develop enterprise leaders (Ready, 2004)?


After her research on Indian Businessmen, Piramal (1996)  said that however talented, a businessman may still not achieve his individual pinnacle unless two outside forces come to his aid. For each businessman she studied, each at some point had a mentor who helped kick him upstairs. And at the first turning point in each of their careers, a piece of luck has come their way. In hindsight, often the lucky event seems trifling, of no major significance, but had it not been there, had they missed seeing opportunity and building on it, none of them would have got the jump-start enabling them to draw ahead of the crowd.

The organization that employs the leader is as responsible for his success or failure as the leader himself. Terman wrote in 1904 that leadership performance depends on the situation, as well as on the leader (Fiedler F. , 1964). Practically, all formal training programs attempt to change the individual; many of them assume explicitly or implicitly that there is one style of leadership or one way of acting that will work best under all conditions. Others assume that the training should enable the individual to become more flexible or more sensitive to his environment so that he can adapt himself to it. The effectiveness of the leader will be defined in terms of how well his group or organization performs the primary tasks for which the group exists. We measure the effectiveness of a football coach by how many games his team wins and not by the character he builds, and the excellence of an orchestra conductor by how well his orchestra plays, not by the happiness of his musicians’ or his ability as a musicologist.

Whether the musicians’ job satisfaction or the conductor’s musicological expertness do, in fact, contribute to the orchestra’s excellence is an interesting question in its own right, but it is not what people pay to hear. Likewise, the performance of a manager is here measured in terms of his department’s or group effectiveness in doing its assigned job. When we think of improving leadership, we almost automatically think of training the individual. This training frequently involves giving the man a new perspective on his supervisory responsibilities by means of role playing, discussions, detailed instructions on how to behave toward subordinates, as well as instruction in the technical and administrative skills he will need in his job. A training program might last a few days, a few months, or as in the case of college programs and military academics, as long as four years. What is hard evidence that his type of training actually increases organizational performance?

Hemphill (1949) expressed its major theme in saying that “there are no absolute leader, since successful leadership must always take into account the specific requirements imposed by the nature of the group which is to be led.” Calder (1977)said that leadership exists only as a perception. Leadership is not a viable scientific construct. It is, however, extremely important as naïve psychology.  Ulrich & Smallwood (2007) argued that we needed to shift from studying leaders to studying leadership. It is easy to be enamored of great leader who has charisma, personality, emotional intelligence, and charm and who delivers great results. Good leaders do not just build their personal credibility; they build the organization’s leadership capability, or the capacity of the organization to sustain future leaders. They pointed out that as we explore the criteria of effective leadership, they realized that many firms had shifted to building leadership, but those that succeeded focused on how leaders inside the company connected a firm to the customers and investors outside the company.

According to them, leaders and leadership are not the same thing. Focusing on the leader emphasizes the qualities of the individual and how he or she leads and engages others. A leader focus works on the knowledge, skills and values a leader demonstrates and works to help individuals become more proficient in their ability to direct others. Focusing on leadership emphasizes the quality of leaders throughout an organization, not just an individual leader and the systems and processes that create these leaders. Great individual leaders may come and go, but great leadership endures over time.

Writers on management often speak of the Indian management style, the Japanese management style, and so forth, as if there is one dominant management style in a national culture (Pascale & Athos, 1981). The reality, however, is different and one often finds a bewildering variety of management styles in the same culture (Khandwalla, 1995). We can best describe the way “leadership” has been tackled as butterfly catching (Connor & Mackenzie-Smith, 2003). Researchers, management theorists and practitioners have brandished their nets in an effort to find the genuine article. All of these approaches share a similar frame of reference. They have taken leadership as an objective “reality” and worked to identify common aspects such as behaviors or competence.

On the other hand, if people would define their terms the same way, most of the disagreements would never have materialized in the first place. We are concerned that this is especially true with respect to leadership literature. At this evolutionary juncture of the leadership construct, the blind men can best describe the leadership elephant with a comprehensive framework that includes the accepted leadership theories within its ambit. Rather we think of it as a coat hanger with the necessary garments neatly arranged on it and available for the taking, depending on our position in the hierarchy, the type of business the organization is in, and the constantly changing organizational whether, some of it quite turbulent, that we encounter as we negotiate our way on a daily basis through the complexities of organizational life (Muczyk & Adler, 2002).


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The second group (feelings and interrelationships) deals with authority, the feeling that he or she belongs in boss’s role; activity, takes a vigorous orientation to problems and needs of the organization; achievement, oriented toward organization’s success rather than personal aggrandizement; sensitivity, able to perceive subtleties of others’ feelings; involvement, sees oneself as a participating member of an organization; maturity, good relationships with authority figures; interdependence, needs of others as well as of him or herself; articulateness, makes a good impression; stamina, physical and mental energy; adaptability, managing stress; sense of humor, not too serious.



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