What is Leadership?
There is no clear-cut answer to what leadership is. Several definitions exist, each of which focus on a specific aspect of researcher’s frame of reference. Bennis (1997) views leadership as ” the capacity to translate vision into reality.” (p. 14). Brodin (1997) views leadership in terms of power. He notes, “leadership is not wielding authority – it’s empowering people.” (p. 100). Burns views leadership in terms of process and requiring a moral center. Of the term leadership Burns finds that the concept “has dissolved into small and discrete meanings” (as cited in Business, 2002, p. 916).
What makes the task more difficult is that is there is also no clear-cut answer to what leadership isn’t. Leadership, depending on one’s definition, can include elements of sociology, psychology, and history. It can be totally focused on behavioral theory, situational theory, or open-systems theory. It can include all of these elements or none and still be valid.
As such, any definition of leadership will be subject to debate. Regardless, a definition is required to provide context. So for the purposes of this essay, leadership will be defined as being the process of transforming objectives into measurable results using the means, motives, and opportunities at the leader’s disposal for motivating others. Looking at each of these elements in turn can provide some basic guidelines for the establishment of a personal plan for the enhancement of transformational leadership ability.
Units of Analysis
For leadership to be self-evident it must be perceived to represent a measurable difference between what existed before and what existed after. To provide a common basis for comparison some type of units of analysis must be defined. As Bass (1990) points out however, “no one approach is fully adequate, by itself, to understand the leadership process” (p.897).
For transactional objectives, the measurement of result is very straightforward. Objective A did not exist before and afterwards it now exists. Many leadership outcomes are not necessarily that clear, nor are they always attributable to tasks performed in a leadership capacity. These transformational objectives are much harder to identify and measure in terms of effectiveness. For example, leadership may be influenced by the behavior of their subordinates. In these cases the causal relationship between the outcome and leadership does not exist. Rather, the leadership behavior was an effect rather than a cause (Bass, 1990, p.883).
The importance of separation of cause from effect in measuring leadership effectiveness is one of providing a basis for repeatability. While no two objectives are necessarily alike, the characteristics of task objectives can provide a basis for determining which leadership decisions have a high probability of success. On the requirements of task Bass (1990) writes,
The emergence of leadership is correlated with how much the emergent leader’s abilities are relevant to the tasks that the group faces. Different tasks call for different abilities, and the leaders who emerge have difference competencies that are relevant to the requirements of the different tasks. (p. 614)
To establish a measurement of leadership effectiveness, therefore, it is imperative to first define the tasks the group faces, then define the requirements of those tasks, and then define the base line metrics for analysis. The actual tool or method to be used can vary widely however two key points stand out: the use of accepted scales and measurement instruments for comparison across multiple objectives at different times and places, and the consistency of the measurement must be maintained before and after for comparison on individual objectives and task assignments.
Leadership in Crisis
The synchronicity of social need, physical and historical context, and their relative relationships influence leadership in determining the best overall options available. In economic terms, leaders must look at the opportunity costs involved in not moving in a specific direction, the marginal benefit of performing a specific action, and the marginal costs associated with that decision and its potential second round effects. The result is ideally the best overall decision in selecting from a range of opportunities to transform the objectives to results.
There are many aspects of leadership decisions however that are not quantifiable in economic terms. Social relationships, technological change, complex organizational structures, and situational effects are all qualitative aspects to leadership that influence the decision making process. Aguayo (1990) writes, “when all the special causes of problems and variation have been eliminated and statistical control or stability has been established, variation and problems will still exist” (p. 62). Because the dynamics of these systems are variable, the nature of leadership from one moment to the next must be constantly changing within a measure of statistical control.
Poor leadership can move these systems out of statistical control and into a state of crisis until control is regained. Whether a leader chooses to look at these situations as threat or opportunity will depend upon each person’s perspective. Opportunities of leadership that can push systems out of statistical control can generally be described as belonging to issues of social change, technological change, and organizational change.
Opportunities of social change relate to the social dynamic of the labour pool or corporate social responsibility. Such issue-opportunities may include availability of skilled labour, training, health-care, aging populations, stress, changing social norms, values, and ethics. Gustafson (2002) notes “corporation social responsibility (CSR) is rapidly becoming an expectation of consumers worldwide that requires a fundamental and holistic change in the way that most businesses currently operate” (as cited in Business, 2002, p. 291). He goes on to indicate a number of marginal benefits including new sales, improved relations with customers, increased productivity, and enhanced ability to attract new staff as just a small example.
Opportunities of technological change relate to the increased requirements of placed on business through information and materials improvement. Such issue-opportunities include computer technology, information handling, intellectual capital, patents, and communications. Wren (1994) notes, “information will be the key to future production systems, and the production function must be more closely connected to the overall goals and strategy of the firm” (p. 405). One only needs to look to Wal-Mart as an example of the sustainable competitive advantage that proper use of technology and information control systems can have on a business.
Opportunities of organizational change relate to those structures between the company, its supplies, its buyers, its staff, outside organizations with vested interest, its shareholders, and others. Such issue-opportunities include mergers and acquisitions, both vertical and horizontal, downsizing, upsizing, relationships with regulators and unions, and internal business processes and systems. Organizational change may also take on a psychological component. Bass (1990) notes one such challenge being that “managers are more likely to be concerned about their personal goals and capabilities than about those of their firm. The psychological contract of managers’ loyalty to the firm is being broken (P. Hirsch 1987; Marks 1988)” (p. 882). The implication is that where goes the manager also goes the organizational structure and all the organizational relationships that manager holds between the company and its business partners.
Common Threads of Leadership
The common threads of leadership provide some basis for the motive of leadership. The internal vision, drive, and determination necessary to do what others will not or can not. Some of what leadership boils down to is how leaders deal with conflicting relational issues of societal values and norms. It is not a subject where there may ever be a clear solution such that the role of leadership, within this context, is more of a balancing act rather than providing a clear vision of the future.
In essence, what you have is the right person, with the right intrinsic qualities, connecting with the societies of their day, throughout their lifetime, in a way that motivates those around them. Leadership and power are all about perception and the willingness of others to be led, whether it is in a corporate setting, politics, or religion. All the different intrinsic qualities of a leader are simply tools that some people use to better effect than others. The common thread therefore is not the quality itself but the context in which those qualities are used and the success of how those qualities are used compared to competitors all vying to fulfill the same societal need at that exact moment in history.
It has been postulated that management thought forms a more coherent picture when viewed in its changing cultural milieu of economic, social, and political forces. (. . .) The era of the social person was an age of individual hopes dashed on the reefs of economic misfortune, of social collisions and maladies, and of political shifts heralding a transformation in traditional relationships (Wren, 1994, p.329).
What can be derived however are the basic underlying relationships that will be important regardless of the tasks at hand. Those relationships are:
- Personal relationship with oneself (values and characteristics)
- Leader-Follower relationships (teams dynamics)
- Peer relationships (networks)
- Mentor relationships (role models), and
- Sociopolitical relationships (social dynamics and situational modifiers)
Strength in a personal value system establishes moral and ethical principles under which a leader operates. These are the learned behaviors passed down within a family, a mentor, learned through experience, or established through articles of a person’s faith, be it religious or spiritual. Toney and Oster (1998) found that senior executives that consciously apply their internal values, faith, and ethics to leadership decision making achieve better results over those that don’t. Regardless of the source, following a set of ethics and morals that is synergistic with the leadership objectives and reinforces the expectation of consistency provides the necessary stability which is crucial for maintaining motivation in both the leaders and their subordinates.
Leader-follower relationships establish the informal context in which the values and cohesiveness of the group express themselves. As Bass (1990) notes, “group effects appear to augment the leader’s impact on the satisfaction of the individual members” (p.596). However as Graen discovered, the “leader-member exchange implies an informally developed role – one that is negotiated between each individual group member and the leader” (as cited in Bass, p.333). The implication is that while the leader may be influenced by the values of the group, the group is far more likely to be influenced by the values of the leader when the leader-member exchange provides positive reinforcement of the subordinate’s satisfaction.
Peer and Mentor Relationships
Peer relationships establish reinforcement of motivational factors in an environment of cooperative learning that is more accessible to a leader than traditional mentor-protégé models and offers greater opportunities for experiential learning. In contrast, the traditional mentor-protégé relationship is more of a top down model that is less accessible however provide greater opportunities for advancement and experience transference. Fine & Pullins (1998) summarize
The general functions that mentors provide for protégés have been classified into two categories: vocational/task training and psychosocial support (Hill et al. 1989; Kram 1985; Noe 1989; Olian et al. 1988; Shockett and Haring-Hidore 1985). Vocational/task functions include sponsorship, exposure and visibility, coaching, protection and giving the protégé challenging assignments. For example, the mentor can encourage the protégé to come into the organization (sponsorship), introduce the protégé to higher-level associates (exposure and visibility), help the protégé develop selling skills (coaching), make sure the protégé avoids violations of organizational norms (protection), and introduce the protégé to potentially profitable customers (challenging assignments). The psychosocial functions include role modeling, acceptance and confirmation, counseling and friendship. (¶ 6)
Sociopolitical values establish the social mechanisms under which leadership addresses stress and conflict to support subordinate motivation. Stress, according to Bass (1990) occurs when social situations are “overly complex, ambiguous, and unclear, as well as highly motivating and demanding in relation to the competence or structural adequacy to deal with the demands” (p. 634). While stress is generally looked upon as a negative thing, conflict can be viewed as either positive or negative depending on the situation and the methods used to manage the conflict. Through the use of transformational compromise (i.e. charismatics, integrative) and transactional agreement (i.e. logical, deductive, economic), most conflict can be reasonably managed (Bass, p. 287).
These common threads are expressed in a number of leadership theories including contingency theory, exchange theory, and open-systems theory and provide the basis from which leadership drives motivation both intrinsic and extrinsic. Each forms part of the motivational web which impacts not only on the leader but also on the subordinates, and other interested third parties such as suppliers, community, customers, and shareholders. But while these relationships form the basis of motivation they are not in of themselves the only tools.
Transcending Leadership Thought
Leadership requires more than simply opportunity and motivation. Leaders must have the means available to them in order to plan, organize and carry out their action plan. It is the effective use of those core personal attributes that differentiates leadership and provides the means for leadership to flourish. Of these attributes three key elements stand out: the legitimacy of a leader’s power base, the innovation used by the leader, and development of self through continuous improvement.
Leadership can therefore be thought of as a product where all the same rules of gaining and sustaining competitive advantage apply. Leadership is impacted by the same five environmental threats that Barney (1996) indicates their corporations do although on a more personal scale: threat of entry, rivalry, substitutes, suppliers, and buyers. A leader’s personal characteristics may be thought of as their “capital” in which they purchase scarce resources. The best leader is the one that has the best value proposition in terms of cost leadership using this “capital” and can differentiate themselves to the exclusion of other competitors.
Differentiation manifests itself through the different types of power leaders use within a group. This may include the ability to punish, reward, do, charm, administer, or some combination of the aforementioned. The legitimacy of a leader’s power base in combination with the type of objectives a leader is pursuing will determine the means by which they will accomplish those tasks. Lord found in 1977 that “tasks behavior to complete the work of the group correlated with the type of power used, but the leader’s efforts to establish socioemotional relations did not” (as cited in Bass, 1990, p. 247). The implication being that by tailoring the use of different types of power, the leader’s role becomes more legitimized as subordinates identify strongly with the amount of motivation they receive from such direction and the success that ensues to accomplish a given set of tasks.
Professional marketing speakers such as Nido Qubein (1990) indicate that to be successful it is not enough to do things better than how other people do them, one must be prepared to do things that others either will not or cannot do. This innovation in approach is the true source of competitive advantage regardless of whether we are talking about leadership or professional selling. However the concept stops short of identifying exactly what innovation is.
By definition, innovation equals change. But change itself does not provide the means to establishing leadership. The transactional change inherent in reorganizing a department may be seen as being proactive in addressing leadership objectives however it may also been seen as simply leadership decisions being altered by situational factors. In essence, it is reactionary, not innovative.
Early adopters of new technology usually gain temporary competitive advantages that are generally difficult to contain and make sustainable (Barney, 1996, p.108). We call these leaders ‘innovators’ because they are on the cutting edge (Bolman & Deal, 1997). However once the innovation has been proven, is it still innovation for those companies that follow in the footsteps of the early adopters? These second movers and other late adopters didn’t develop the technology. They didn’t sweat through the difficulties of reengineering. They didn’t have to develop contingency strategies to mitigate unknown risks. All they had to do was apply proven innovation to their individual circumstances.
Bolman and Deal (1997) identify four main frames that are the basis for innovation in corporate culture. They are the structural frame, the human resource frame, the political frame, and the symbolic frame. They argue that through the integration of each of these frames it is possible to reframe an organization to transform its culture. They state that leaders, “need the capacity to act inconsistently when consistency fails, diplomatically when emotions are raw, non-rationally when reason makes no sense, politically when confronted by parochial self-interests, and playfully when fixation on task and purpose seems counterproductive” (p.377).
By extension then, even though second movers are not innovative in being on the cutting edge of new process or technology, they may be on the edge in terms of defining the innovation for the sociopolitical culture of their specific working environments. In doing so they establish a culture of leadership through specialized knowledge that is unique to the organization. In contrast, bringing knowledge which is innovative but not unique would therefore not establish a culture of leadership. The implication then is that establishment of leadership requires leaders to constantly striving for self improvement and specialized knowledge which promotes innovation and enhances the leader’s base of power.
This continuous improvement is a large part of being a leader. The same way society expects general practitioners to continue their medical training throughout their lives, leaders must also continue to train and grow as well. Vaill (1996) coins the term leaderly learning to describe one of four strategies for life long learning specifically geared towards management. Vaill’s hypothesis is that “managerial leadership is learning” (p.126). He goes on to say that, leadership inherits the characteristics of initiative, exploration and discovery, expression through practical application, self-actualization of the person, practice, continuous improvement, and reflection. Moreover, that for leaderly learning to take place, managers need to understand the relationship between these leadership characteristics and learning as a way of life.
In order to become effective leaders, managers and those in leadership roles must approach leadership as a way of being. The connection between successful leaders, learning, creative and critical thinking, and the challenges of cultivating these qualities requires a dedication to self-development that transcends passive learning models and requires a more dedicated approach. A leader must be able to see continuous improvement opportunities, not limitations, build collaborative relationships, maintain a positive attitude in themselves and those around them, and stimulate dialogue as a result. Moreover, throughout all of this, they still have their own work to do, which may involve other skill sets as diverse as engineering, law, medicine, politic, architecture or any other number of specialties in which they are perceived to be an expert.
Effective leaders cultivate a passion based on intrinsic motivation and the critical and creative thought processes that support mastery of the discipline. It is an evolutionary process that requires constant study and application. The same effort put into maintaining one’s core competencies also needs to be applied to matters of leadership, learning, and embracing innovative ideas. This requires a willingness to accept that commonly held beliefs and paradigms may need to be stretched or broken, and that the process needs to be focused, targeted, and continual.
Leadership in 21st Century
In a world of permanent white water, leadership objectives in the 21st century create unique challenges which impact on leadership sustainability. Companies come and go rapidly as changing information, computer, and communication technology force companies to adapt or perish. Three key challenges facing leadership are the organizational alignment of companies to their objectives, the situational environment, and corporate ethical behavior that may help or hurt companies in reach those goals. Complicating matters is the fact that these elements may not necessarily be under the direct control of the leader.
A company’s organizational structure is a reflection of the organization’s philosophy and mission that are in turn affected by its leadership (Bass, 1990, p. 574). Leadership however is affected by an organization’s size, structure, complexity and stability (Bass, p.579). This polytypic relationship between the leader and the organization creates challenging environments at the best of times however when combined with rapid technological pressure for change from outside the organization, insufficient adaptation can result in the business becoming uncompetitive.
The most well known case of a company failing to adapt its organization to rapid information and technological pressure is the example of Kmart verses Wal-Mart. Wal-Mart is first and foremost a logistics company. It gained its competitive edge by building an information infrastructure that monitored everything from supplier shipments, to consumer buying habits, to competitor’s prices, and the way inventory is moved between locations (Stalk & Lachenauer, 2004, p. 65). By the time Kmart knew what was happening in terms of the Wal-Mart competition, Wal-Mart had built up such a competitive edge that it was impossible for Kmart to compete. As professor Stephen Hoch notes of Kmart’s attempt to bridge the gap through exclusive supplier deals, “the problem was, though, that Kmart, unlike Wal-Mart’s, ‘had such a terrible replenishment system that they were always out of stock.’” (techtarget.com, 2002).
What can be seen from the Kmart experience is that it is no longer enough to simply be able to identify that change needs to occur within an organization. Leadership must adapt quickly, and have an organizational structure that is capable of quickly deploying mission critical decisions. Failure in any one area can generate a feedback loop within an organization impacting its philosophy, mission, and stability. For leadership to be effective then it must “avoid allowing the situation to dominate them to such an extent that normlessness results” (Bass, 1990, p. 565).
As Bass (1990) notes, “the trait approach is not enough for understanding leadership. Above and beyond personal attributes of consequence, the situation can make a difference” (p.563). In other words, historical and current events have a way of impacting organizational mission objectives and therefore external influence cannot be discounted from organizational leadership decisions. This may include factors of market stability, economic stability, political stability, and the regulatory or social environments in which the organization functions.
Firms that operate in stable environments tend to have more stable processes and require less overall leadership. As conditions change however, leadership becomes more of an issue. To complicate the issue, stability changes in one arena, such as economics, may in fact be best addressed by tackling political issues and visa-versa. For example, Wren (1994) observers that “trade among nations has, more often than not, been initiated and carried out as a political strategy” (p.415).
Many other events can also drastically impact leadership and organizational affects. The events of September 11th, 2001 were a situational modifier that drastically impacted the leadership environment for many companies and firms. The creation of the stock market bubble in the late 1990s and its subsequent crash in 2001 was another. The recessions of the 1990s and 1970s; the political instability of the Watergate trails; the Vietnam War; the fallout of the Kennedy assassination; the Jewish Holocaust during WWII. All were modifiers of the leadership environment that have their origins in the social dynamics of their times and not necessarily the result of a single individual leader even though some events may have been precipitated by a single individual.
The last challenge to be examined facing leadership is how to accomplish the organization’s mission and objectives without compromising ethical boundaries. Conflicting priorities may lead some managers to take short cuts, ink deals without fully thinking through the ramifications, or to overlook the wrongful actions of their co-workers. While these actions may be logically justified in specific circumstances, ethical relativism can lead to several problems such as laziness in not developing a moral standard and avoidance of open dialogue to discuss issues and alternatives (Weiss, 1998, p. 71-72).
Conjoined with the idea of corporate ethical behavior is corporate social responsibility and employee social contracts. The level of ethical behavior depends on the type of social responsibility practiced as a result of the organization’s philosophy and the cultural relativism in which the company operates. While it is not possible for every corporation to match every type of individual ethical outlook, leadership must balance the associated needs appropriately in order to avoid amoral management decisions (Weiss, 1998, p. 80).
The accountability for ethical decisions however doesn’t entirely rest with management. Weiss (1998), in citing Pastin, indicates one of the key tenets of high-ethical firms is that ethical responsibility is an individual rather than collective concern (p. 121). The idea of individual responsibility is not new. Wren (1994) states that while “business ethics may not be able to rise above the ethics of society in general. This situation does not release managers from responsibility, but suggest that change must originate from and be implemented by multiple sources” (p. 410).
Personal Transformational Leadership Planning
Planning for the enhancement of transformational leadership ability means preparing for the expected and the unexpected. To accomplish this there are some basic guidelines which define the parameters of leadership planning. Those guidelines include establishing
- A vision of expected outcomes,
- A personal system of values and ethics,
- A system of continuous leadership measurement and feedback,
- A dedication to continuous improvement,
- An open mind to new and innovative ideas,
- An affinity for social relationships,
- An understanding of the external environment, and
- A plan for handling contingencies.
By focusing on a multiple approach to leadership planning, factors that influence the balance of leadership affect can be brought within statistical control and avoid leadership crises. Such plans will derive their base objectives from the personal circumstances in which a leader finds themselves and the possible contingencies that may be required to handle reasonable external influence. Innovation, alignment of organizational structures with organizational objectives and social philosophy, and continuous improvement on relevant skills not only differentiates leadership ability but also reinforces the legitimization of leadership power bases. In effect, resulting in a net positive effect on the business culture and its effective transformation of objectives into measurable results.
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