Leadership is one of the subjects most talked about and least understood. It is fraught with assumptions and myths, and our understanding of leadership often lacks clarity. Yet it remains much-discussed from high-school leadership camps to corporate management research to studies in cognitive psychology. So, what is leadership? What do we know from research about what makes good leaders? And, how can we cultivate good leadership in ourselves and our surroundings?
Let’s explore some of the major questions within current research on leadership.
What is Leadership
Broadly speaking, leadership is another word for influence – which we all possess to varying degrees. It is a term applied to military strategists and pacifist prophets, to CEOs with a legally defined mandate, and to helpful grandmothers working informally behind the scenes.
There are a number of myths floating around about leadership, and, if nothing else, they provide a good place from which to jump into the world of leadership theories.
Leadership is an innate quality of an individual
Some older theories suggest this, but it has proven impossible to identify what these qualities are. Studies of twins suggest that, at most, 30% of one’s leadership potential is hereditary. Studies also show that interventions such as role-play exercises or training sessions to improve leadership style are highly effective. This shatters the notion that leadership is an innate quality, but rather, suggests that good leadership is learned and honed through hard work and observation.
A traditional definition of leadership that continues to hold sway does define leadership as the ability of an individual to rally a group towards a particular goal. People have been asking what distinguishes leaders from others for a long time, from Sun Tzu, the military strategist of ancient China, to Thomas Carlyle in the 19th c. writing about Prophet Muhammed. This notion of a ‘Man of History’ who creates change through charisma, vision, and incredible social influence continues to affect current theories of leadership.
Characteristics that are thought to correlate with leadership include extraversion, intelligence and self-efficacy (the ability to get stuff done), and historically, other traits such as physical attributes or inherited qualities (think royal blood) were also popular. However, linking these qualities across leaders in empirical study has proven very difficult. The elusive charisma or “presence” that good leaders exhibit has proven especially hard to pin down.
Research on leadership now includes questions about “followship.” Factors like the cohesion of the group, followers’ behavior and respective degrees of self-awareness will also determine the nature of the leading that emerges. In this way, leadership is not a quality of an individual, but a quality of a group.
In other words, leadership is neither innate nor exclusively the quality of an individual; it is influenced by the surrounding context and improved by the dedicated hard work of leaders.
Leadership is power over people
While this is sometimes the case, good leadership is more often power emerging between people in a reciprocal relationship. It is shown in a number of studies (and comes as no surprise) that leaders who involve the group in decisions and are accountable to the community are often better at rallying support and commitment.
Another definition argues that leadership is the property of a group or system rather than an individual. In this definition leadership cannot be power of one over another because leadership is a dynamic that emerges in a group. James Scouller’s 3 Levels of Leadership presents leadership in this way. He says leadership is a practical problem that is bigger than the leader. Leadership is not personal power, but a series of processes and choices towards a certain goal. He argues that a leader must ensure that in a group there is a shared vision, progress and results, team spirit, and individual attention; however, leadership exists in the processes not in the individual. In other words, a good system involves many different people taking on roles that might be considered “leadership roles.”
Another theory that subverts this myth even more is leadership as service.
This is perhaps the most ancient theory of leadership, but it is not common in the corporate management writing that dominates current leadership studies. Rather than the familiar image of a pyramid with the leader at the top, servant leadership flips the image to an upside-down pyramid with the leader at the bottom, working to serve the needs of the others, and to help them perform and flourish. The term was coined in 1970 by Robert Greenleaf, and its central values are empathy, integrity, competence, and amiability. The test to distinguish between leader-first or servant-first leadership is to ask: Do those served grow as people? The expectation is that followers become healthier, wiser, more free and autonomous and more likely to become servants themselves.
In short, leadership can be power over people (an authoritarian leadership style), but it can also be power between people or service to others.
Leaders control group outcomes, usually for the better (i.e., it’s good to have a leader)
Studies show that leaders can be helpful in rallying group action and reducing the bystander effect (where people wait around for another to take action); however, leadership can also be destructive. Besides the many obvious examples, and on a more banal level, one recent study shows that business managers regularly stifle employee’s experience of meaning in their work. This happens routinely and unwittingly when input is undermined, when project goals are shifted frequently, or when people are transferred away from projects before reaching any kind of conclusion. This is related to the false notion that leaders are almost solely responsible for the achievements (or failures) of the group. Empirically, many other factors are shown to be important – group dynamic, group cohesion, relevant experience, competence, and a host of other environmental factors.
This relates to Noam Chomsky’s criticism of our misplaced reliance on leaders: it allows us to ignore personal responsibility and dulls our critical thinking. This is an important critique. How many times are we eager to defer judgement to an authority figure (regardless of whether they are an expert in the field)? How often do we relegate our own analysis, out of laziness, out of shyness, because it allows us to remain distant and disengaged? Chomsky distinguishes leaders from “subject matter experts,” and he suggests seeking advice and opinions of subject matter experts makes sense in contrast to desperately seeking authority figures, regardless of their relevant expertise. This raises another question: what if the “subject matter expert” speaks softly and modestly? How often do confident “leaders” rather than quality guidance compel us?
Leaders can have a positive influence in a group, but they are not necessary in every circumstance, nor is their input necessarily more important.
What is a leadership? Some say it is the ability of an individual to rally a group towards a certain goal.
Others say it is a quality of a group that includes shared vision and monitoring progress and results. Others say it is the process of group members growing in themselves and their desire to serve. The list goes on. The range of ways people exert influence in their lives is infinite.
Indonesians are some of the most active Twitter users in the world, and an increasingly influential arena for people to exert their influence is online.
Unsurprisingly, a new topic in research is “e-Leadership.” Research questions include: What is the role of technology in determining how we work together? Can leaders effectively rally people and support their work when they never meet face-to-face? What tools are needed for effective e-leaders? So far, studies show that most of the skills needed to rallying people in-person translate to virtual communities, including self-awareness, being mindful of peoples’ feelings and status, etc. With the exponential spread of technology, we can expect more research on this topic in the future.
While academia may not offer a unanimous picture of a leader, what does it tell us about good leadership?
Are there certain qualities good leaders seem to share?
What do we know about good leaders
In the context of leadership as a personal quality, how do good leaders lead? This is unsurprisingly one of the central research questions today. On a basic level, there are different types of leadership. Task-oriented or transactional leadership revolves around performance and reward. This can be contrasted with transformational leadership where followers overcome expectations and transcend themselves towards a common goal.
A critique of earlier leadership theories is that they fail to look at leadership presence – that special energy that inspires. Work on authentic leadership tries to include this and hypothesizes that “presence” comes when a leader is deeply in-tune with his or her inner self. Research suggests that authentic leaders share 4 qualities:
1. balanced processing – considers outside experience and evidence before forming an opinion or making a decision.
2. internalized moral perspective – has and adheres to an internal set of values or code of conduct, has a moral compass.
3. relational transparency – communicates clearly and directly, is honest and transparent about relationships.
4. self-awareness – is conscious of one’s feelings and behavior, and their effect on surroundings.
There are a lot of books out there with concrete tips and tools on how to develop one’s leadership skills. Studies do show that leadership, like any skill, can be improved through work and practice. These books usually frame leadership as the ability to rally groups towards an external goal. In other words, these are guidebooks in how to increase one’s influence. Unfortunately, they are mostly marketed towards the business world, and one can’t help feeling it is not the corporate sector that should be strengthening its social influence skills. Perhaps if more of these books talked about leadership as service I’d feel differently.
In terms of what research tells us about good leaders, Project GLOBE (Global Leadership and Organizational Behaviour Effectiveness) is a massive international study in leadership styles. It looked at 17, 300 middle-managers across 62 cultures and identified 6 dimensions of leadership that are shared across cultures.
These are as follows:
• Charismatic – integrity, decisiveness, self-sacrificing, and performance-oriented.
• Team Oriented – diplomatic, administratively competent.
• Self-protective – able to induce conflict when necessary for the greater good. but conscious of status and wanting to save face.
• Participative – supportive of those being led.
• Human Orientation: modesty and compassion for others in altruistic fashion.
• Autonomous – can function without constant consultation.
Following from our initial myth debunking, you will notice that none of these are innate qualities and that each requires effort and practice.
So, how do we cultivate good leadership in ourselves and our surroundings?
Maybe we practice our critical thinking and voicing our own questions. Maybe we ask ourselves what myths about leaders we hold close? If leadership and influence are as closely related as they seem then it’s important to examine our own ideas about leadership. It might help us see to whom we turn for authority (the tallest in the room? the loudest? the oldest? the youngest?) and those whom we marginalize.
Surveying academic research on leadership illuminates a few things. First, there is a dominant way of thinking about leadership: leadership as measured by project outcomes. It is implicitly hierarchical, and, luckily, not the only way people envision leadership. Second, followers choose the leader and the type of leadership that is possible. Even though the dominant research focus continues to be on personal leadership style, the rest of us, in every moment when we are following rather than leading, are influencing the kind of leadership that exists around us. In other words, we are all implicated, all the time.
How we think of things affects how we behave; if we think of something as healthy, we may seek to eat it. If we see someone as a leader, we may treat them differently than we otherwise would. For this reason alone, it is useful to be aware of how we think of leadership. Do you think of a leader at the front of the room encouraging, guiding and rewarding performance? Do you see a group brainstorming together and see leadership as the spark of energy they are generating? Or does it appear for you in acts of service?
Perhaps from years of schooling, I am quick to see the person standing at the front of the room. If anything, this leads me to react against the hierarchical, static leadership structures I see around me. But I’m inspired to begin a process of unlearning: those structures are only part of the picture, and it is my eyes that highlight them. How can I learn to notice the acts of service around me? Would I feel more compelled to step into traditional leadership positions if they connoted self-awareness, kindness, and generosity? If good leadership is envisioned as facilitating a creative and dynamic group environment, it begins to sound like a wonderful skill and activity.
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