The posting below looks at six core considerations of leadership expressed in the form of false dichotomies worth exploring. It is from Chapter 1, The Evolving Nature of Leadership, in the book Leadership Theory – Cultivating Critical Perspectives, by John P. Dugan. Copyright © 2017 by John Wiley & Sons. Published by Jossey-Bass, a Wiley Company. One Montgomery Street, Suite 1200. San Francisco, CA 94104-4594 www.josseybass.com All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.
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Core Considerations of Leadership
Just as framing provides the skeleton of a building, mapping out unique spaces in the interior, core considerations provide structure to a theory and help distinguish among theories. An entire book could be written on core considerations, so those covered here are by no means exhaustive. I have selected key points of departure that stand out across theories, each of which is framed as a dichotomy given formal theories frequently align with one side of a consideration or the other. These choices lead to substantive differences between theories. They are also enormously problematic in their presentation of false binaries.
Born Versus Made
That there is even a need to address a consideration about whether leaders are born or made in this day and age is mind-numbingly frustrating. Ample empirical research illustrates that leadership is unequivocally learnable when defined according to most contemporary theoretical parameters. That the myth persists is due to a number of influences.
Many of the earliest formal leadership theories were built on the assumption that leaders were born based on heredity (e.g., monarchies and dynasties) or some type of fixed trait that one either did or did not possess (i.e., winning the genetic lottery). This eventually shifted to a perception that effective leaders and leadership were a function of possessing specific attributes, many of which could be learned. This interpretation of traits as learnable is often lost on many as the idea of born leaders is frequently reified. Across media platforms heroic leader archetypes are everywhere. Books are written on powerful individuals. Success or failure is attributed to individual actions. This stems at least in part from the highly individualistic cultural orientation of the United States (and many other countries for that matter), which emphasizes competition and achievement (Hofstede, Hofstede, & Minkov, 2010).
The reification of heroic leaders may also reflect psychological responses to issues of power and authority inherently embedded in leadership that reinforce our need for infallible leaders. They calm our anxieties in the face of threat, increasing a sense of security while simultaneously displacing responsibility (Heifetz, 2010; Kellerman, 2004; Lipman-Blumen, 2005). In other words, if leaders are born rather than made, we get let off the hook. We get to turn the gaze outward rather than inward, as the quote from the start of the chapter so beautifully challenged us to do. As much as we may not want to admit it, that can be enticing.
Ultimately, formal leadership theories that explicitly or implicitly argue for leadership as an innate quality still exist and wield influence. Their assumptions can be bolstered when combined with informal theories of leadership that may be built on heroic archetypes or psychological needs. Thus, a key aspect of leadership development becomes helping learners to move beyond a false dichotomy to see that leaders are rarely born and often made. Critical learners of theory must attend to these considerations and how they are addressed.
Leader Versus Leadership
By now you have likely noticed the attention to clearly distinguishing the terms leader and leadership. Leader refers to an individual and is often, but not always, tied to the enactment of a particular role. This role typically flows form some form of formal or informal authority (e.g., a supervisor, teacher, coach). When not tied to a particular role, the term leader reflects individual actions within a larger group, the process of individual leader development, or individual enactments attempting to leverage movement on an issue or goal. Leadership, on the other hand, reflects a focus on collective processes of people working together toward common goals or collective leadership development efforts. Note that leadership does not presume that individuals lack formal roles or authority. It simply looks beyond those individuals alone and at the overarching process. Formal theories will vacillate in their emphases on leaders, their roles, and their development versus leadership as a process, how it unfolds, and collective development.
Kellerman (2004) argued the differentiation between leader and leadership is a semantic differential that is very difficult to understand, particularly among those without any experience studying it. She is correct in this assertion. If you ask most people what leadership means, they will typically begin by describing characteristics of an individual leader (e.g., “Leadership is a person who…”). Other scholars suggest the differentiation between leader and leadership, though difficult to make, is essential to advancing leadership development (Day et al., 2009; Guthrie, Jones, Osteen, & Hu, 2013; Hannah et al. 2008). As a critical learner, differentiating leader and leadership is essential for connecting concepts to practice.
Leader Versus Follower
The conflation of leader and leadership makes it easier to create an additional false dichotomy around the terms leader and follower. Most often, leader is interpreted as a person with some form of positional authority and followers are those subject to that authority. Heifetz (2010) expressed frustration that “the term follower is an archaic throwback rooted in our yearning for charismatic authorities who will ‘know the way,’ particularly in times of crisis and distress” (p. 20). He also expressed concern that rigid leader/follower distinctions can contribute to perceptions of dependency among “followers” who may begin to see the two roles as mutually exclusive. You either are the leader or the follower.
Frustration with the “follower” label has led to the use of all sorts of alternative words in formal leadership theories such as subordinates (gosh, doesn’t that feel better?) and associate (what does that even mean?). The problem here is that these words are typically just as triggering for people while missing the point entirely of needing to better name the power and authority dynamics that underlie leader/follower relationships. Perhaps a better framing involves asking about the multiple roles that actors play in a leadership process. Let’s put this into context. If we look at a complex organization such as Facebook or Apple, people would likely label the CEO as the leader given the person’s role and the majority of employees as “followers.” Perhaps some higher-level executives might earn the label leader as well with subsets of their own followers. The label of leader/follower, then, is tied solely to positional authority rather than the contributions of individuals within the organization. If we flip the example to one from social movements, I often see an interesting shift in labeling. In the Civil Rights Movement in the United States there are multiple identified leaders (e.g., Martin Luther King, Jr., Malcom X, Rosa Parks, James Baldwin) along with many followers. However, the followers are often concurrently characterized as being leaders in their own right in the process. In social movements it seems we are more willing to simultaneously extend labels of leader and follower to a person. The examination of any formal leadership theory, then, requires the exploration of how leader/follower relationships are explained … if at all.
Leadership Versus Management
Also tied up in leader/leadership and leader/follower dichotomies are arguments about whether leadership and management represent the same or unique phenomena. Once again, the role of authority gets tied up in the understanding of this. Many scholars define management as bound to authority and focused on efficiency, maintenance of the status quo, and tactics for goal accomplishment. An exceptional manager keeps systems functioning through the social coordination of people and tasks. Leadership, on the other hand, is less concerned with the status quo and more attentive to issues of growth, change, and adaptation.
It would be fair to say that management is a necessary but insufficient tool for addressing the complex social, political, and scientific issues that require leadership in society. However, in sharing this, it becomes important not to dismiss the significance of management to leadership. Yukl (2013) reminds us, “The empirical research does not support the assumption that people can be sorted neatly into these two extreme stereotypes” (p. 6) and Rost (1991) expressed grave concern over the denigration of management as if it were the antithesis of leadership. Some leaders are good managers and some managers are also fine leaders. A critical learner will see the shifting sands of how scholars treat leadership/management in formal theories, moving from almost an entirely management emphasis to contemporary perspectives that seem to forget the need for good management.
Authority Versus Power
Nearly every core consideration up to this point has included some mention of authority. This is an evocative statement about how authority is intimately tied, whether we want to admit it or not, to our understanding of leadership. Indeed, power and authority become core considerations in most leadership theories, but ones that typically exist just below the surface. Issues of power and authority are often presumed, unnamed, and left open to interpretation. Indeed, empirical research on formal leadership theory typically does a better job at examining power and authority dynamics than the theories themselves.
So, what are power and authority and why are they alternatingly positioned as synonymous or opposing concepts? Authority is framed as the right to direct others in the pursuit of a specified, and typically shared, outcome and is often tied to management or a positional role (Vecchio, 2007). Power represents a broader concept that can but does not have to be associated with authority, reflecting the ability to shape others’ behaviors. The concept of influence merits attention here as well given its frequent usage in many formal leadership theories. Influence is traditionally viewed as a softer version of power that is “weaker and less reliable” (Vecchio, 2007, p. 69).
Table 1.3. Types of Power
Type of Power
How It Operates
Derived from the perception of authority or the right to make a request and an obligation to comply
Derived from the ability to punish or through the threat of punishment
Derived from the ability to provide a desirable form of compensation
Derived from admiration or identification and a desire for acceptance and affiliation
Derived from the perception of specialized or superior knowledge.
Adapted from French & Raven (1968)
French and Raven (1968) offered a classification system examining five types of power described in Table 1.3. Referent and expert power are commonly referred to as informal and less likely to be tied directly to authority, whereas legitimate, coercive, and reward power are more formal and associated with authority roles. A person “can possess each of the five sources of power to varying degrees, and their use of one power base can affect the strength of the other” (Vecchio, 2007, p. 73). Informal power has the potential to be more potent, but also more fragile than formal power. Think of it this way … If managers lose credibility, they still have the authority to compel employees to complete tasks as defined in their job descriptions. Alternatively, when opinion leaders (e.g., those in social movements or politics) do something that jeopardizes referent or expert power there is less to fall back on in attempting to shape others’ behavior.
Formal leadership theories often struggle with how best to address individual and collective power along with the ways in which authority plays out in leadership. Some theories argue for the complete decoupling of authority from leadership, whereas others suggest this is impossible. A critical learner needs to attend to the power and authority dynamics that play out in formal theories regardless of whether they are explicitly stated.
Macro Versus Micro
A final consideration addresses macro versus micro levels of focus that appear in formal leadership theories. This is perhaps most tangible through a theory’s examination of context as well as intended impact.
The study of context in shaping leaders and leadership is expansive and important given the footings and foundations already discussed in this chapter. We know that organizational, domestic, and global cultural contexts can radically shape the ways in which individuals and groups understand, experience, and enact leader roles and leadership processes. The degree to which this is represented in theory, however, varies enormously. Many theories seem to leave context out entirely, presuming that the social behaviors associated with leadership occur in a vacuum. This leaves it up to the reader to make assumptions about how and why context might matter. Other theories explore context very narrowly looking at specific influences in isolation such as one-on-one relationships. Still other theories take a macro approach, looking only at context broadly such as influences associated with cultural considerations. This makes it difficult to attribute specific elements of the context to particular influences on leadership.
A similar concern arises regarding how formal theories address the intended spheres of influence for those engaging in leadership. Spheres of influence reflect the target of leadership impact and may range from personal or local levels to systemic or global levels. They also reflect the boundaries of potential influence that a person holds in a given context. We all have multiple spheres of influence operating simultaneously.
The absence of a stated sphere of influence in a theory can cause significant confusion about the target of leader and leadership efforts. When learning a theory you might say, “Well, I can see how this would work in my project team, but how would this ever work in a complex organization or in attempts to create broad social change?” Similar effects can occur with theories adopting micro-level approaches in their intended sphere of influence potentially conflating leadership with management or reducing leadership to a series of minor task achievements. Conversely, many contemporary theories target systemic levels as the sphere of intended influence, such as the transformation of political systems of the ending of major social injustices. Although these are important aspirational goals, these theories can have unintended negative consequences if they oversimplify complex issues. Additionally, those involved in leadership may be more likely to dismiss incremental gains or lose hope in long-term processes. No formal theory will ever be able to take into account the full range of micro and macro influences associated with contextual factors or intended spheres of influence. However, the degree to which they adequately address these issues is important to note as a critical learner.
Core considerations, or the framing of leadership theory, assist in mapping differences that emerge among theories. They pose a series of false dichotomies that contribute to how theoretical content takes shape. In some cases, formal theories omit these considerations altogether, attempting to avoid polemic issues. Critical learners recognize that no formal theory will ever be able to account for the full range of considerations presented here, nor are there any “magic bullets” for resolving long-standing debates in the literature. They will, however, understand that naming these considerations and the ways in which they influence the application of a theory is essential.
Day, D.V., Harrison, M.M., & Halpin, S.M. (2009). An integrative approach to leader development: Connecting adult development, identity, and expertise. New York, NY: Routledge.
Guthrie, K., Jones, T.B., Osteen, L.K., & Hu, S. (2013). Cultivating leader identity and capacity in students from diverse backgrounds. ASHE Higher Education Report (Vol. 39, No. 4). San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.
Hannah, S.T., Avolio, B.J., Luthans, F., & Harms, P.D. (2008). Leadership efficacy: Review and future directions. The Leadership Quarterly, 19, 669-592.
Heifetz, R. (2010). Leadership. In R.A. Couto (Ed.), Political and civic leadership: A reference handbook (pp. 12-23). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.
Hofstede, G., Hofstede, G., & Minkov, M. (2010). Cultures and organizations: Software of the mind. New York, NY: McGraw-Hill.
Kellerman, B. (2004). Bad leadership: What it is, how it happens, and why it matters. Boston, MA: Harvard Business School Press.
Lipman-Blumen, J. (2005). The allure of toxic leaders: Why we follow destructive bosses and corrupt politicians and how we can survive them. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.
Vecchio, R.P. (2007). Power, politics, and influence. In R.P. Vecchio (Ed.), Leadership: Understanding the dynamics of power and influence in organizations (pp. 69-95). Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame.
Yukl, G. (2013). Leadership in organizations (8th ed.). Boston, MA: Pearson.