Leadership is a messy activity often fraught with ambiguity and frustration. Choosing the “right” path can be difficult. And, for many situations, there is no obvious “right” path. Have you ever read a leadership book or blog post that proposed you could solve all your leadership problems by doing these 5 or 10 steps? Did it work? Probably not if you are reading this post. “There are thousands of books on leadership and even more articles and blog posts. Unfortunately, some of the advice is nonsense made up to “fill” blog posts so the authors can increase their authority on the topic in the eyes of their online followers” (Latham, 2014, p. 12). Yes, I am aware of the irony. 🙂 While the advice might not necessarily be bad, it is most likely incomplete and based on an unstated definition of “success.” It is the latter that is the more dangerous.
What Does Success Look Like?
What does success look like and who gets to determine if leadership is successful? If you have read anything that I have put forth recently on leadership you probably already know that I propose that success is determined by the value that is created for the multiple stakeholders of the organization. Specifically, the investors, customers, workforce, suppliers and partners, the community, and the natural environment. Unfortunately, “all too often people evaluate and ‘hold up’ leaders as highly successful examples based on a single measure of success such as economic profit. When they peel back the ‘veil’ they often find that the leader created the economic success at the expense of one or more other stakeholders” (Latham, 2014, p. 13).
Importance of Context
How many times have you read conflicting advice? One leadership “pundit” says you need to focus to get things done. Duh. Another says you should reduce focus to facilitate creative thinking. Ok. Both are probably good advice and, at the same time bad advice. It might depend on the context – particular situation, activity, and purpose. Some leadership theories and models explicitly include one or more aspect of context such as Situational Leadership which focuses on follower motivation and competency. However, few if any adequately address all the contextual factors and unfortunately we know very little about which aspects of leadership are context dependent, to what extent they are context dependent, and how they are context dependent. There is some evidence to suggest that there are some universal leadership behaviors that “tap” into deeper human needs common to the species (Zimmerer, 2013). However, more research is needed.
Time for Convergence?
Academic researchers in their attempts to contribute have put forth numerous narrow leadership theories but seldom get rid of any of the old theories. This proliferation of leadership theories over the last 50+ years has resulted in a messy landscape of overlapping, complementary, and competing concepts and perspectives. What is needed is a synthesis of theories based on three key leadership dimensions: the individual leader characteristics (who leaders are); the leadership activities (what leaders do); and the leadership style or behaviors (how leaders do it). These three dimensions combine to influence the organizational systems, culture and individual followers which in turn create the results or value for the multiple stakeholders. For a more complete discussion of the challenges, theories, and framework for future leadership research see my latest Perspective paper (Latham, 2014).
In Latham (2014) I call for leadership scholars to collaborate with practitioners and begin working toward a leadership theory that builds on the leadership framework and identifies the combination of individual leadership characteristics, leadership behaviors, and leadership activities that will create an environment for quality and innovation and, in turn, result in value for multiple stakeholders. This is no small challenge and there is a lot of work to be done which is why only the brave need apply. “Those who take up this challenge may want to study Emerson’s 1837 address to the Phi Beta Kappa Society at Cambridge titled “‘The American Scholar’ and take to heart his notion, ‘free should the scholar be, free and brave’” (Latham, 2014, p. 14).
My own research agenda is now focused on key constructs in the leadership research framework. I am currently working with colleagues on two research projects – One on spiritual leadership with colleagues at the University of Northern Colorado and Texas A&M and another on servant leadership with my research partner Tatiana Zimmerer. What are you working on?
- Emerson, R. W. (1837). The American scholar. In The Complete Works of Ralph Waldo Emerson, centenary edition, ed. E. W. Emerson, 8115. Boston and New York: Houghton Mifflin.
- Latham, J. R. (2014). Leadership for quality and innovation: Challenge, theories, and a framework for future research. Quality Management Journal, 21(1), 5. | Download
- Zimmerer, T. E. (2013). Generational perceptions of servant leadership: A mixed methods study. (Doctoral dissertation), Capella University, Minneapolis, MN.