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Framework for Understanding and Using Theory and Advice on Leadership

Leadership theory can be organized into clusters**. Most theories of leadership fit primarily into one of four clusters.
   
       
 

Each cluster has strengths and limits. While an optimal approach to leadership would draw on all four clusters, knowing the key features of each cluster is a powerful tool for determining the strengths and limits of any theory or advice you encounter.

We have crystallized the message of each cluster of books in this table.

     
       

1. Lead by Embodying the Right Personal Qualities

Cluster 1 (upper left) focuses on the qualities that are thought to universally contribute to leadership. It suggests that leadership requires embodying particular personal qualities that result in being the right kind of person. The earliest versions of these theories of leadership posited the “Great Man” theory of leadership, popular in the late 19th and early 20th century when only men were thought to be leaders. This was followed by a wave of "trait" theories that tried to specify the particular qualities that accounted for leadership. An assumption in these earlier theories was that leaders are born, not made.

Interest in these early theories waned in 1930's and 1940's, as researchers were unable to agree on which qualities accounted for leadership. However, the notion that the personal qualities of a leader are important has proved to have enduring value.

There was a resurgence of theories emphasizing character in the 1980's. More recent version of these theories assume that the desired qualities can be learned, rather than the earlier emphasis that leaders were born with the required qualities. Talk began to be heard of "transformational" leadership (e.g., Burns) and then "charismatic" leadership (e.g., Conger). In this approach the leader's role is to help followers reach their full potential, raising their motivation and even their morality. The classic examples here are Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King. Nelson Mandela would be another more recent addition to the list.

A weakness of these theories is that they tend to emphasize the "larger than life" character of leaders. This has a downside. While it may be inspirational to review the contribution of political leaders like Gandhi, or corporate leaders such as Jack Welch, it could just as easily be disheartening. Such an emphasis implicitly discourages "ordinary" people from believing that they can become effective leaders. A subtler limitation of this cluster is that even if one did find a correlation between leadership and particular traits, it doesn't follow that having those traits leads to leadership.

Nonetheless, the emphasis on a leader's character continues to attract rich contributions to advice on leadership and is the source of some of the most interesting recent contributions (e.g., Senge et al).

The value of this cluster for leadership development is that it:

  • Reinforces the importance of recognizing that your most valuable tool as a leader is yourself.
  • Calls attention to the critical role of self knowledge, knowing your strengths and your limits.
  • Makes clear the importance of developing yourself fully as a person (i.e., developing your emotional intelligence, your "whole self").

2. Lead by Doing the Right Things

Cluster 2 (lower left) focuses on what leaders actually do without emphasizing their underlying character. One leads by doing the right things, and those things are thought to be consistent, regardless of the particular situation. This perspective began to emerge in the 1940s and 50s and was the beginning of attention to leadership "style". Many of the behavioral frameworks pointed to two behaviors, relating to tasks and to relationships. A popular example was the Blake-Mouton Managerial Grid, which appeared in about 1960 and was widely used in management training. The Grid implied that there is one best style that should always be used: one combining high emphasis on both task and relationship behavior. This is an intuitive appealing notion, but it is unsupported by research.

Clearly there is some wisdom in the perspective of this cluster. It seems common sense to assume that it's not enough just to show up embodying your qualities; it matters what you as a leader do. Certain behaviors tend to get mentioned again and again (e.g., creating a vision, walking the talk), so it seems reasonable to suppose that, on average, some actions are better than others. Taking an inclusive view of "behavior", this cluster invites attention to how leaders think about their role. It suggests that some conceptions of leadership are consistently more potent than others (see Heifetz for a thoughtful definition of leadership).

But although this cluster adds value by calling attention to what leaders actually do, most of its proponents tend to neglect the importance of the motivation and intention of the person undertaking the action. This is unfortunate. Can anyone just pick up a practice and use it effectively? Presumably not. Underlying intention may be decisive, as may skill. And despite the intuitive appeal of the notion that some actions are consistently the right thing to do, no agreement on what those actions are has emerged. Indeed, observing truly extraordinary leaders suggests that their behavior often has a paradoxical quality that is not easily summarized in a ' to do' list. Still, this cluster continues to attract many new and valuable contributions.

Our view is that the best way to leverage this Cluster is to begin to be clear on your High Performance Leadership Pattern, i.e., the things that you consistently do when you get extraordinary results. From that foundation, you can draw upon this literature to:

  • Increase your awareness of how your behavior changes at different points in the leadership cycle.
  • Enrich your fundamental leadership approach by identifying patterns of thought and behavior that strengthen and extend your basic patterns or fill in missing gaps.

3. Lead by Adapting What You Do to Fit the Situation

Many of the theories that emphasize behavior also take the view that leaders should adapt their behavior to the situation. Situational leadership, which became very popular in the 1960s and is still a visible force, illustrates this approach. Rather than assuming that "one size fits all", leaders adjust their approach to take into account various realities of the particular situation.

This reasoning is quite compelling. Some of these theories, like Situational Leadership, are able to offer simple, actionable advice (i.e., adjust the degree of direction and support you offer your subordinates to take into account their level of commitment and skill). To be sure, not all of these theories are so simple and readily usable (e.g., Vroom and Jago).

Despite these strengths, most theories of this kind suffer to some degree from an assumption that we believe is fundamentally flawed. They imply that a leader can select a style as if it were one of a set of golf clubs with which the leader is equally skilled. There is good reason to doubt this is true. Everyone has strengths and limits that suit them for some situations more than others. Trying to use a style that does not come naturally simply may not work, as it may be executed in such a labored and non-confident way as to come across as phony and manipulative. The theories that claim the most general usefulness (such as the menu of six styles recommended by Primal Leadership) are the most vulnerable to the limits of this assumption. How many leaders can readily switch from a "commanding" to a "coaching" style?

Another limit of this Cluster is that there is no theory that covers all situations. Each one tends to have a particular emphasis that ignores others. There is no map to guide a leader in judging whether it's more important to focus on the nature of your subordinates, as recommended by Situational Leadership, pay attention to the nature of the decision being made, as in Normative Theory, or attend to the overall character of the situation, as recommended in Primal Leadership.

It's also the case that one of the situational factors that is usually overlooked in these theories is time. Most do not take into account the need for leaders to do different things at different stages of a leadership initiative (Kotter's work is one of several exceptions.) Nonetheless, this Cluster contains very substantial contributions and continues to attract more.

The usefulness of this Cluster as a resource for leadership development is that it:

  • Provides suggestions on where it could make sense to supplement/adapt your High Performance Leadership Pattern in order to be more fully responsive to the particular situation (e.g., the situation of taking on a new leadership role).

4. Lead by Selecting/Adapting the Situation to Fit You

Cluster 4 (upper right) calls attention to the power of matching a leader's qualities to the situation. The basic idea is to choose situations in which you can succeed. This notion makes a lot of sense. We all have a different combination of strengths and limits and it stands to reason that we'll be more effective in some situations than others. Yet for many years there was only one well known theory of this type (Fiedler's) and it's more well known to researchers than to managers. The reason may be the implication that, since traits are not easily changed, some people are not suited for some leadership situations.

In the last few years there have been some additions to this Cluster. The approach taken by the Gallup Organization (described in Buckingham and Clifton) fits here. They emphasize identifying your strengths and building on them. Rather than adapt to situations that do not suit your style, they suggest you should avoid them or assign them to others who are suited for them.

A related idea is that there is limited value in focusing leadership development on your deficiencies. A person could spend a long time trying to get better in an area of weakness and never become more than mediocre. Therefore, leaders may get higher leverage in further developing their strengths than from trying to shore up areas of mediocrity.

One risk of this cluster is that it could tacitly encourage leaders to ignore any area where they are not strong. Great strengths are often accompanied by great weaknesses and ignoring them is risky. Most of these theories acknowledge that risk, and some point in particular to addressing "fatal flaws", but these caveats could easily be overlooked by leaders who are eager to avoid any areas of vulnerability. This can be a career trap, as other people can come to see you as effective only in a narrow class of situations and offer you only them. It is similar to an actor becoming "type cast".

Another limitation of this perspective is that leaders can't always choose their situation. You may not be in control of your destiny. You may just have to do as well as you can where you happen to be. Still, the notion of being mindful of where you are likely to be most successful, and factoring that into your career moves, makes enormous sense. By keeping the conditions that work best for them in mind, leaders who find themselves in situations that don't suit their styles can take steps to compensate, an area where some of these theories offer useful advice.

It is important to acknowledge two dimensions to "fit". One to which we give the most emphasis in the seminar is how well the situation suits your high performance leadership style and the personal preferences that are related to your Temperament. However, a viewpoint with increasing momentum calls attention to alignment with your "purpose" as the foundation for both an authentic life and effective leadership. From this perspective a leader would ask whether a particular situation poses an opportunity to address the values to which he or she is committed.

These two dimensions can easily conflict. You may choose to put yourself in a situation that is not optimal for you from a style perspective because you want to solve a problem that you care about. A strand of writing on the value of defining your "life brand" combines these two perspectives.

The works in this cluster make a contribution to leadership development in one or more of the following ways. They:

  • Offer tools for increasing your awareness of your strengths (e.g., Buckingham, et al).
  • Increase your ability to manage your career by being clear on your strengths (and your values) and making sure that to the extent possible you choose situations in which there is a good match (e.g., Drucker).
  • Invite you to look and listen deeply within yourself to uncover the “calling” that will most fully enable you to express your values and talents and make a contribution to the world.
  • Encourage you to find ways to modify situations that are not a good fit for you, in order to compensate as much as possible for the mismatch.

Conclusion

Each of these four clusters offers an important perspective on leadership. And each has limitations that are typically overlooked by the authors and advocates. A person who wishes to enhance his or her leadership would do well to draw lessons from each of these perspectives, while not relying exclusively on any one of them.

**CreditWe are indebted to Arthur Jago for the basic idea of dividing leadership theory into four parts, which we have adapted and extended ("Leadership: Perspectives in Theory and Research." Management Science 1982, 28(3): 315-336.)


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