So, What is Leadership?

10 01 2010

Overview of Leadership Theory – By Dr Mark Ellis

So, what is leadership? If you ask six different people, you are likely to get six different answers. This brief discourse attempts to shed some light on leadership theory based on previously established research that has developed over the last 40-50 years.

In his efforts to develop a leadership construct, Burns (1979) formulated his theory from research that examined leadership from the description of traits, contingency, behaviors, and styles; coining the terms transactional and transformational leadership.

What makes a leader is still highly debated in academic and practitioner circles, however, according to Bennis (1994) all leaders seem to share some very similar characteristics. As Stodgil (1974) observes, there are as many definitions of leadership as there have been individual who have attempted to define it. Burns (1978) perceived leadership as one of the most observed, yet most misunderstood phenomenon on earth.

Further, Maxwell (1998) states, there are leadership publications that deal with management issues that do not define or adequately discuss leadership, while others are a hodge podge mixture of both. However, the literature suggests that there is a definite distinction between management and leadership (Zaleznik, 1992). Kotter (1988; 1990; 2001) suggests that many organizations today are over managed and under lead. He also asserts that organizations, in order to be successful, need to develop their capacity to exercise leadership (p.103).

Moreover, Kotter (2001) indicates the importance of both management and leadership in an organization and is careful to assert that leadership and management are both necessary components in a successful organization. Moreover, he indicates that leadership complements management; it does not replace it. Further, he makes a clear distinction between management and leadership by suggesting that good management controls complexity while effective leadership produces useful change (Kotter, 1990).

Gardner (1990) defined leadership as “the process of persuasion or example by which an individual induces a group to pursue objectives held by the leader or shared by the leader and his or her followers” (p. 1). Chemers (2000) defined leadership as “a process of social influence in which one person is able to enlist the aid and support of others in the accomplishment of a common task” (p. 27). As the literature suggests, leadership may be defined in terms of the power relationship between leaders and followers (Burns, 1978; Heller & Van Till, 1983; Hollander, 1992; Jago, 1982).

Current sociological trends, globalization, and the knowledge explosion of the information age have called for an understanding of leadership, not only in organizations with institutions of higher learning as well (Gibbons, 1998). Researchers have indicated that effective, strong, and ethical leadership is in high demand (Caldwell, Corrinne, Shapiro, Poliner, Gross & Jay, 2004). As a result of such demands, there has been a huge interest in leadership studies and many colleges, universities, and professional development organizations. This influx of interest in the area of leadership has created a huge volume of literature that tends to agree that not all leadership styles are the same (Burns, 1978).

There are certain leadership styles that are effective and others who are not (Maxwell, 1993). Moreover, the literature indicates that transformational leadership may be identified as a highly effective leadership model that is prevalent in high performing organizations (Bass, 1990; Kouzes & Posner, 2002; Maxwell, 1993).

A review of various and current studies on leadership reveal that there is a wide variety of different theoretical approaches to explain the complexities of leadership process (e.g., Bass, 1990; Bryman, 1992; Gardner, 1990; Hickman, 1998; Rost, 1991). Different researchers conceptualize leadership as a trait, behavior, or style. Further leadership studies have been conducted in many different contexts ranging anywhere from societies to small groups to political structures and large organizations (Kouzes & Posner, 2003).

Based on early research which approached leadership studies according to traits, behaviors, style, and contingency theories; James MacGregor Burns (1978) based his premise on these early methods of leadership research. Leadership theory and research has developed significantly since those early days. Moreover, scholars and practitioners have contributed significantly to the advancement of leadership studies. As more contributions are being made to the Academy no doubt more leadership research will greatly enhance our understanding of leadership – both theory and practice.




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