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Leadership - More Art Than Science

For several semesters, I taught Leadership in the MBA program at WCU. There must be over one hundred books available on leadership. I have probably read 30 or more. Most offer little insight and are based primarily on one person's opinion and unique experience. A favorite; however, is The Art of Leadership by George Manning and Kent Curtis which I am using now for the references in this article.

Leadership has been well studied by researchers and academics. Whereas management is concerned with control and execution, leadership becomes important when a change in direction is needed. We think of leaders as people influencers - causing others to follow a new direction by their words and actions.

Early studies of leadership were based on two prominent theories. Trait theory proposed that physical and psychological characteristics accounted for effective leadership. One major study of organizational leaders in the US found six common traits among successful leaders. These included: a need for achievement, intelligence, decisiveness, self-confidence, initiative, and supervisory ability. When I have asked an MBA class whether anyone knows someone who was a born leader, about 50% of the students will typically raise their hands.

In the 1930s, an emphasis on behaviorism in psychology moved researchers to study leadership behavior. It was believed that the actions of leaders were more influential than traits. Kurt Lewin identified three leadership styles based on a leader's behavior. An Autocratic style leader maintains tight control of group activities and makes most if not all the final decisions. A Democratic leader encourages group participation and majority decision making. A Laissez-faire leader typically takes a hands-off approach to leading and lets followers decide things for themselves. In addition to Lewin's identified styles, there is a suggested fourth one, a Participative leader. Similar to the Democratic style, a Participative leader solicits input from those involved, listens carefully, but then decides on the appropriate action.

Studies by Rensis Likert at the University of Michigan identified two dimensions of leadership behavior: a job centered dimension (a focus on work tasks) and an employee centered one (showing consideration for employees). The combination of a leader's focus in these two areas was shown to be highly influential on effectiveness. Leaders that focused solely on getting the work done by employees created an impoverished culture with little loyalty or retention. Those that focused primarily on keeping employees happy produced a country club atmosphere with little concern for production. The most effective leaders spent about half of their time focused on both (a high concern for people and for getting the work done).

As part of my MBA course on leadership, I brought in regional leaders to share their views on how to be an effective leader. These were people in authority with years of experience and seasoned views - a city mayor, a state senator, a retired general, and CEOs of large organizations. Each presented a unique view of leadership and I came to understand that effective leadership often depended upon having the right leader, in the right situation, with the right group of followers. Is it any wonder that successful CEOs in one company often fail when moving to other industries?

Leadership Contingency Theory proposes that leaders in different situations need different skills, values, and interests and that leadership effectiveness depends on the combination of the leader, the followers, and the situation. That view matches my experience and seems appropriately pragmatic. New employees need a more Autocratic leader who provides job structure, rules, and close supervision. Highly competent and experienced employees might resent such a leadership style and see it as micro-managing.

Likewise, there should be compatibility between the leader's style and the needs of the followers. In a crisis situation (the building is on fire), a Democratic leaderships style could be a fatal mistake. An Autocratic leader, ordering the evacuation of the building, would be the appropriate choice of leadership style. In situations where multiple employees will be impacted by a significant change, a Participative leadership style would likely be most effective. Everyone is encouraged to provide input on the decision, but the leader is ultimately responsible for making the call.

Effective leaders, it seems to me, are those who are willing and able to adjust their style of leading to match the situation and needs of employees. This may take a good deal of practice and knowing employees well enough to understand their needs, values, and motivation.

One other lesson I learned over the years is that if a leader is trusted by followers, it covers up a lot of faults. Leaders should strive to be trusted. And how is trust created? It is done through empathy, transparency, and keeping promises.

PS - I should mention that little of the above applies to transformational style leaders - those that have the charisma to inspire followers and generate extraordinary loyalty. I still have much to learn before understanding the transformational leadership style. Maybe one day .............

If you would like the appropriate academic citations for the contents of this post, please contact me at


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