Leaders and Leadership

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Masterclass
Leaders and leadership – many theories,
but what advice is reliable?
Robert J. Allio

Robert J. Allio’s
management career
includes both senior
corporate and academic
positions. A principal of
Allio Associates, a strategy
consultancy located in
Providence, RI
(rallio@mac.com), he is a
Strategy & Leadership
Contributing Editor and the
author of The Seven Faces
of Leadership (2002). His
S&L articles on leadership
include: ‘‘Masterclass: the
radical and virtuous
alternatives for reinventing
management purpose,’’
(Vol. 39, No. 4), ‘‘In this
recession’s aftermath,
CEOs face unique threats
and opportunities,’’ (Vol. 38,
No. 4) and ‘‘Leadership: the
five big ideas,’’ (Vol. 37,
No. 2).

plethora of guidance awaits managers seeking to become better leaders, but much of the advice is based on questionable evidence, most of it anecdotal. Leading academics don’t even agree on what constitutes leadership or which leadership practices can be successfully emulated.

A

In the endless avalanche of self-help books on leadership there are recommendations for how to become a leader, behave like a leader, train other leaders, be a pack leader, a change leader, a mentor leader, a Zen leader, a tribal leader, a platoon leader, an introverted leader or a triple-crown leader. The popular press offers us myriad case histories of leaders from Steve Jobs to the captain of the ‘‘best damned ship in the US Navy’’ that showcase an example of success, formulate a set of principles based on it and prescribe those practices for leaders everywhere. None of the books I’ve seen, however, takes the next step and describes how managers who adopted the recommended practices fared as compared with their competitors who did not.

Despite this lack of proof of efficacy, managers’ continuing need and appetite for leadership advice propels a massive market. Amazon offers almost 60,000 different books on the leader and over 80,000 on leadership, a more than six-fold increase over the past ten years. Google cites millions of references to leaders and leadership, and their recent Ngram analysis shows that the term ‘‘leader’’ has appeared in the literature from 1990 to 2008 almost 50 percent more often than the term ‘‘manager’’ – and ten times more often than the term ‘‘follower.’’

Some working definitions
Still, despite this deluge, we lack a Grand Unifying Theory, a tested leadership paradigm that identifies the source code or essence of leaders and a definition of the conditions that produce leadership. So we have to make do with working definitions of leadership, which include:

B
B

j

The situational notion (leadership is a phenomenon that precedes and facilitates decisions and actions).

B

STRATEGY & LEADERSHIP

The transactional definition (leadership is a social exchange between leaders and followers).

B

j

The semantic description (leadership is the process of leading).

B

PAGE 4

The early simplistic paradigm (leadership is good management).

The esthetic concept (leadership is an art or a craft).

VOL. 41 NO. 1 2013, pp. 4-14, Q Emerald Group Publishing Limited, ISSN 1087-8572

DOI 10.1108/10878571311290016

‘‘ Why are we still evaluating, analyzing, arguing about leadership? ’’

Leadership, like the Sufi proverb of the blind men describing an elephant in terms of its parts, is all of these – it has many facets, dimensions and aspects. In this essay, I summarize several fundamental concepts that have shaped the current debate about leaders and leadership. I hope to dispel some leadership myths and offer some advice to leaders about how to perform more effectively in their roles. Why are we still evaluating, analyzing, arguing about leadership? First of all, let’s recognize that leadership is hard to study because opportunities to observe unretouched leadership actions in light of the alternatives it confronted are rare. More often we infer that a leadership event has occurred by...
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