Most business people are familiar with the old style of leadership – a model that reflects the days when hierarchy and command-and-control reigned. Conventional wisdom says that military units are most likely to succeed in the field when they follow strict command-and-control procedures – when they operate within a rigid, top-down hierarchical organization: officers at the top of the military pyramid issue orders, and the grunts on the ground swiftly and unquestioningly obey and execute those orders.[i]
However, there are other paths to the coveted leadership nirvana business managers seek.
You have to start with the assumption that most people in most organizations want to do the right thing. But in a world of infinite choices, people are struggling to figure out what the right thing is. If you look closely at how people make decisions, a clear pattern emerges. No matter what the new strategy, initiative, or change program is, people have the same questions: how is this change relevant to what I do? What, specifically, should I do? How will I be measured, and what consequences will I face? What tools and support are available? What’s in it for me? The leader’s job is to help people answer those questions. After all, if people can’t answer those questions on their own, then the grapevine will provide the answers – and those answers won’t always be right.[ii] But what is the right type of leader for these questions? It depends.
There are also numerous theories about leadership, or about carrying out the role of leader. Some examples include the servant leader, the democratic leader, the principle-centered leader, group-man theory, great-man theory, traits theory, visionary leader, total leader, situational leader, etc. The following sections provide a brief overview of key theories.
The Great Man Theory
This theory assumes that leaders are born and not made. Great leaders will arise when there is a great need. In other words, where there is a leadership vacuum someone will fill it. The theory, however, does not assume that the leader will be good or bad, just that they will become present when needed.
Early research on leadership was based on the study of people who were already great leaders. These people were often from the aristocracy, as few from lower classes had the opportunity to lead. This contributed to the notion that leadership had something to do with breeding.
The idea of the Great Man also strayed into the mythic domain, with notions that in times of need, a Great Man would arise, almost by magic. This was easy to verify, by pointing to people such as Eisenhower and Churchill, let alone those further back along the timeline, even to Jesus, Moses, Mohammed and the Buddha.
Gender issues were not on the table when the ‘Great Man’ theory was proposed. Most leaders were male and the thought of a ‘Great Woman’ was generally in areas other than leadership. Most researchers were also male, and similar concerns were a long way from being realized.
The Trait Theory bases its foundation on the concept that people are born with inherited traits. Some traits are particularly suited to leadership. People who make good leaders have the right (or sufficient) combination of traits.
Early research on leadership was based on the psychological focus of the day, which was of people having inherited characteristics or traits, again the leaning towards genetic predisposition of leadership ability. Attention was thus put on discovering these traits, often by studying successful leaders, but with the underlying assumption that if other people could also be found with these traits, then they, too, could also become great leaders.
The following traits and skills were identified as critical to leaders:
Adaptable to situations
Alert to social environment
Ambitious and achievement-orientated
Dominant (desire to influence others)
Energetic (high activity level)
Tolerant of stress
Willing to assume responsibility Clever (intelligent)
Diplomatic and tactful
Fluent in speaking
Knowledgeable about group task
Organized (administrative ability)
Along with the above traits, researchers determined that the success and failure of leaders identified four primary traits by which leaders could succeed or ‘derail’. These were:
• Emotional stability and composure: Remaining calm, confident and predictable, particularly when under stress.
• Admitting error: Owning up to mistakes, rather than putting energy into covering up.
• Good interpersonal skills: Being able to communicate and persuade others without resort to negative or coercive tactics.
• Intellectual breadth: Being able to understand a wide range of areas, rather than having a narrow (and narrow-minded) area of expertise.
For a long period, inherited traits were sidelined as learned and situational factors were considered far more realistic as reasons for people acquiring leadership positions.
Assuming leaders can be made rather than born, this theory is based on the idea that successful leadership is based in definable, learnable behavior.
Behavioral theories of leadership do not seek inborn traits or capabilities. Rather, they look at what leaders actually do. If success can be defined in terms of describable actions, then it should be relatively easy for other people to act in the same way. This is easier to teach and learn then to adopt the more ephemeral ‘traits’ or ‘capabilities’.
Behavioral is a big leap from the Trait Theory in that it assumes that leadership capability can be learned, rather than being inherent. This opens the floodgates to leadership development, as opposed to simple psychometric assessment that sorts those with leadership potential from those who will never have the chance.
A behavioral theory is relatively easy to develop, as you simply assess both leadership success and the actions of leaders. With a large enough study, you can then correlate statistically significant behaviors with success. You can also identify behaviors which contribute to failure, thus adding a second layer of understanding.
Behavioral Role Theory
People define roles for themselves and others based on social learning and reading. People form expectations about the roles that they and others will play. People subtly encourage others to act within the role expectations they have for them. People will act within the roles they adopt.
We all have internal schemas about the role of leaders, based on what we read, discuss and so on. We subtly send these expectations to our leaders, acting as role senders, for example through the balance of decisions we take upon ourselves and the decisions we leave to the leader.
Leaders are influenced by these signals, particularly if they are sensitive to the people around them, and will generally conform to these, playing the leadership role that is put upon them by others.
Within organizations, there is much formal and informal information about what the leader’s role should be, including ‘leadership values’, culture, training sessions, modeling by senior managers, and so on. These and more (including contextual factors) act to shape expectations and behaviors around leadership.
Role conflict can also occur when people have differing expectations of their leaders. It also happens when leaders have different ideas about what they should be doing vs. the expectations that are put upon them.
Role expectations of a leader can vary from very specific to a broad idea within which the leader can define their own style. When role expectations are low or mixed, then this may also lead to role conflict.
As a leadership theory, participative leadership states that involvement in decision-making improves the understanding of the issues involved by those who must carry out the decisions. People are more committed to actions where they have involved in the relevant decision-making.
People are less competitive and more collaborative when they are working on joint goals. When people make decisions together, the social commitment to one another is greater and thus increases their commitment to the decision. Thus, the conclusion is that several people deciding together make better decisions than one person alone.
The Participative Leader, rather than taking autocratic decisions, seeks to involve other people in the process, possibly including subordinates, peers, superiors and other stakeholders. Often, however, as it is within the managers’ whim to give or deny control to his or her subordinates, most participative activity is within the immediate team. The question of how much influence others are given thus may vary on the manager’s preferences and beliefs, and a whole spectrum of participation is possible.
There are many varieties on this spectrum, including stages where the leader sells the idea to the team. Another variant is for the leader to describe the ‘what’ of objectives or goals and let the team or individuals decide the ‘how’ of the process by which the ‘how’ will be achieved (this is often called ‘Management by Objectives’).
The level of participation may also depend on the type of decision being made. Decisions on how to implement goals may be highly participative, whilst decisions during subordinate performance evaluations are more likely to be taken by the manager.
There are many potential benefits of participative leadership, as indicated in the assumptions, above. This approach is also known as consultation, empowerment, joint decision-making, democratic leadership, Management by Objective (MBO) and power-sharing. However, Participative Leadership can be a sham when managers ask for opinions and then ignore them. This is likely to lead to cynicism and feelings of betrayal among staff.
Participative leadership theory is a classic 1960s view in that it is still very largely top-down in nature, with the cautious addition collaborative elements towards the Utopian final state.
[i] Cohen, Eli, and Tichy, Noel, “Operation – Leadership,” FastCompany.Com, Issue 27, Page 278, August 1999, Mansuento Ventures LLC, 2006, http://www.fastcompany.com/magazine/27/operation.html, accessed December 31, 2006.
[ii] Rosenfeld, Jill, “Want to Lead Better? It’s Simple,” Fastcompany.com, Issue 32, Page 58, February 2000, Mansuento Ventures LLC, http://www.fastcompany.com/magazine/32/simplicity.html, accessed December 23, 2006.
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