As we survey the path leadership theory has taken



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Streams of Research


Over the past century, four principal approaches have evolved in the study of leadership: the trait approach, the situational approach, the functional or behaviorist approach, and the transformational approach. Each approach has an impact on this study, but overarching these research streams is a tension about the use of quantitative (or experimental) versus qualitative approaches. Sometimes in scholarly work the lives or broad leadership experiences of certain men and women are qualitatively examined in hopes of finding commonalities, some average tendencies, so that appropriate generalizations can be made and a better understanding of the entire process can be achieved. Quantitative approaches, on the other hand, have dominated the literature in recent years; essentially, they approach the leadership puzzle by inductively fitting together parts of a picture whose overall composition is presumably known. Qualitative studies, more deductive and holistic in their approach, focus instead on creating the picture or composition as new parts of the collage are gathered and analyzed.

During the first half of the 20th century writers examined individuals who had achieved a certain level of authority or responsibility in an effort to understand the process of leadership and to identify any unique qualities that these leaders might possess. Fundamental to this approach was the notion that some people are born with characteristics that make them natural leaders: leaders were born, not made. The classical works cited above and other early efforts such as the Great Man approach (so named presumably because these writers could find no great women) essentially employed qualitative methods. They focused on the detailed situations of selected individuals, on the personal traits and characteristics of individuals identified as leaders, such as intelligence, values, self-confidence, strategic abilities, physical presence, and appearance. Predictably, research found only a weak linkage between personal traits and success as a leader; the diversity of traits that many effective leaders possessed strongly indicated that leadership ability isn’t often associated with genetics.

In the late 1940s and 1950s, with scholarly advances in psychology and social psychology, research became more quantitative, inductive, and survey-based in nature. Researchers sought answers among a broader set of individuals in positions of influence rather than from a smaller number whose lives and styles were examined in greater detail. Innovations in computing technologies and significant progress in the discipline of statistics enabled scholars to begin using tests and measures of aptitude to examine broad ranges of attributes among large numbers of situations and people. Scholars conducted intricate quantitative, model-building experiments to test (necessarily narrow) concepts of leadership behaviors by examining data of limited usefulness to the broader issues being studied. The initial focus remained on leader traits in order to compile a list of leadership attributes.3 Among the traits examined were creativity and self-confidence, physical traits such as age and energy level, fluency of speech, popularity and sociability, and persistence against obstacles and desire to excel. This so-called “trait” approach pointed to certain characteristics thought to be associated with effective leadership, such as the willingness to be in a position of control and dominance over others and being attuned to the needs of others.4

But these traits, predictably perhaps, were found to be important only under particular situations. Trait theories thus evolved into a second, also largely quantitative or inductive, approach: situational leadership. Possession of a particular trait was no guarantee for success: its importance was situational or dependent on the situation. For instance, the trait of creativity, consistent with effective leadership in general, was predictably found to be more important in entrepreneurial situations and in developing new businesses than it was in highly bureaucratic situations: the findings from the trait research led to the trait-situational variant, where both the situation and the traits were deemed to be important.

While traits and situational studies emphasized the individual characteristics of leaders (and occasionally, of followers), the functional or behavioral approach that followed focused on the behaviors of leaders in an effort to understand leadership. The behaviorist approach examined actions and communication patterns that leaders employ, rather than the traits they possess. Many behaviors can be taught and learned somewhat more readily than are traits, and thus the notion that leaders are born began to lose ground among scholars. Leadership, or at least certain leadership skills, could in fact be taught. Early behavioral studies served as the precursors to many of the “empowerment” theories so popular today.5 These theories emphasize the empowerment of workers, or the delegation of significant responsibilities and sharing of authority with “teams,” in the management of organizations. Behaviorist research also focused initially on another leadership dichotomy: people-orientation and task-orientation. This approach attempted to ascertain under what situation each form of behavior is most effective. The essential point was that behaviors that might be effective in one situation might not be so successful in others; behavior effectiveness is contingent upon organizational situations. Other, more recent work (like dyadic theory) focuses on the relationship between a leader and a follower and argues that trait and behavior theories oversimplify the relationship between leaders and followers. In particular, dyadic proponents argue that leaders don’t uniformly broadcast a trait such as self-confidence or a behavior such as people-orientation that is received equally by each subordinate. Still, under the quantitative models, principal attention is given to the reliability of measures and to the relationships among variables but little or no attention is shown toward the overall logical adequacy of the underlying model6.

Among the works that take a more comprehensive and dynamic (or inter-temporal) view of leadership and followership are James MacGregor Burns’ Leadership (1978), Ronald Heifetz’s Leadership Without Easy Answers (1994), and Howard Gardner’s Leading Minds (1995).7 Burns’ qualitative study introduced the concepts of transactional and transformational leadership and has been the basis for considerable quantitative research in recent years (nearly 600 Ph.D. dissertations in various disciplines have “transformational leadership” in the title, according to Sorenson8). Along with the works of Gardner and Heifetz, Burns’ Leadership approaches leadership studies from a holistic and deductive perspective.

The interest in, or perhaps the fixation with, leadership, which is a special form of power, has much to do with its consequences, and particularly its negative ones. Events of the last and current centuries confirm it: the direct and indirect impact on hundreds of thousands of persons of an Idi Amin or a Hitler or a Castro. But leadership has always been more than just power. Conversely, seeing power simply as leadership obscures the greater imperative of power in leadership, as depicted in Shakespeare’s Henry V, where the king has to use considerable persuasion and reward to achieve goals, and it hides the crucial relationship between leaders and followers. Maxwell’s laws indicate that for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction, and for every power move there is a corresponding reaction that offsets, limits, or modifies that power. Parents of teenagers know about the limits of power, as do baseball pitchers who have tried to overpower Mickey Mantle or Barry Bond with fastballs. Limits to power therefore suggest that leadership is about persuasion and not about domination. Unlike sheer power or domination, leadership is inseparable from the goals and the needs of followers; leadership and followership are circular or reciprocal relationships. Burns plots a general course in the study of power and political leadership, using examples from historical themes to illustrate his points.

Burns recognized explicitly that the focus of research should be on leadership, rather than on leaders, and that the hierarchies of motivations of both leaders and followers are the determinants shaping this reciprocal relationship called leadership. In other words, leadership was a process, not a person, a “rich and pulsating" process held together by the glue of the motivations of followers and leaders. It was both a qualitative and a multi-disciplinary response, affirming not only the primacy of Burns’ own discipline, political science, but also that of psychology and other disciplines in the study of leadership. Burns’ holistic approach stood in sharp contrast to the inductive (and often not cumulative) model building that had dominated leadership research for much of the 20th century. It was a return to the more comprehensive qualitative method that had prevailed at the beginning of the 1900s in an attempt to arrive at a more universal picture of leadership. It also tended to avoid the false dichotomies in leadership studies: are leaders born or made? Are they people or task oriented?

Zaleznik and Ketz de Vries in 1975 published Power and the Corporate Mind, where for the first time a distinction was made between managing and leading.9 Three years later Burns proposed his similar typology of “transformational” and “transactional” leadership. Leadership, Burns argued, was not only effective or transactional; there were moral dimensions to it as well. Effective leaders transacted with their followers based on rewards and incentives, but they also transformed them at times. He thus made a distinction between two different but compatible leadership behaviors—transformational and transactional—and many scholars would subsequently use Burns’ terminology when describing leadership (transformational) and managing (transactional). For example, Bennis and Nanus, as quoted by Conger, distinguished between leadership and management this way:

Management typically consists of a set of contractual exchanges, “you do this job for that reward”…What gets exchanged is not trivial; jobs, security, money. The result, at best, is compliance; at worst, you get a spiteful obedience. The end result of the leadership we have advanced is completely different: it is empowerment. Not just higher profits and wages… but an organizational culture that helps employees generate a sense of meaning in their work and a desire to challenge themselves to experience success.10


Burns’ multidisciplinary concept also emphasizes the importance of the leaders’ early lives and of the vast array of stimuli and influences to which they are exposed and by which they are surrounded, an aspect taken largely from psychology and psycho-history that has not received the attention it deserves among quantitative research efforts. Many other writers who have pondered the determinants of extraordinariness or genius have emphasized the importance of early childhood: where do leaders find the strengths to deal with a high level of uniqueness or otherness as compared to other people in areas like communication or interpersonal relations or perseverance?

Gardner, with his central notion of the leader’s “story,” applies a cognitive framework to developing the elements of a model, or “anatomy” of leadership, and further deconstructs leadership within the context of the leader-follower dynamic. His anatomy asserts that leaders achieve their effectiveness through the stories that they relate. He explicitly uses “relate” instead of “tell” because “relate” implies a much broader connotation; words are only one way to communicate. Thus, the embodiment of traits, such as Churchill’s cigar and the confident “V” sign, or the use of other symbols, become part of a leader’s story. Gardner emphasizes the struggle that takes place in the minds of followers as they evaluate both the stories of leaders as well as the “counterstories” of opposing perspectives as the circular process of leadership and followership evolves. Gardner’s approach is also heavy with the influences of childhood on the eventual leader, including the early socialization of the child, drawing significantly from Erikson, Freud, and Piaget, particularly in the area of the personality of the young child.11

Heifetz combines elements present in both Burns and Gardner while emphasizing the process of change or adaptation—the new strategies, the clarification of values, the new ways of operating—that leaders must effect in mobilizing people to do adaptive work and fix their own problems. Gardner’s notion of story is consistent with the adaptive processes inherent in Heifetz’s concept of the leadership and followership process, if there are, as surely there must be, iterative or dynamic versions to leaders’ stories and if the group uses the stories to facilitate adaptive work. Heifetz’s approach effectively blends Gardner’s “story” or vision idea with the notion of power and persuasion from Burns to arrive at a useful framework through which to define the process.

Leadership has no easy answers, according to Heifetz, and leaders are always a part, but only a part, of the answer. This is what makes his notion of adaptive work crucial to an understanding of leadership. People too often look to leaders for the answers to their problems, when in fact the people themselves are the only ones who are capable of solving them. History indicates that leaders are commonly placed on pedestals, with unrealistic expectations about their abilities single-handedly to achieve results. Leaders are frequently attacked, dismissed, or even killed because they come to represent loss of one sort or another to members of a group or community. Scapegoating authority figures is as unfair as it is prevalent: leaders are given authority to provide direction or to maintain order, but they are resented if or when they try to place the adaptive work back on the people themselves. Adaptive work, according to Heifetz and to Burns earlier, is the exposure and evaluation of conflict and contradictions within groups to mobilize people to learn in new ways. The clarification of what matters most becomes the heart of the leadership function. Adaptive work is therefore the learning necessary to deal with conflicts in the values people hold, or at least to diminish the gaps between the values and hopes people hold and the realities they face. This leadership concept requires a change in values, beliefs, and even behavior. And the inclusion of competing values within a group might be indispensable to adaptive success: the international business that ignores the widespread concerns about globalism might not be very successful in the long run.



Another element from Heifetz is the temporary nature of leadership. Part of this temporariness comes from biological imperatives—human beings have limited life and work spans—but it more often originates in the self-interests of people. Self-interest frequently overcomes the interests of a group (or of a leader) as individuals return to their personal concerns and put aside group priorities. Put somewhat differently, how often can or even should the coach ask the players to win one for the Gipper, when perhaps they don’t even know the Gipper or when they have to pick up a child from soccer practice? Several writers in fact have asserted that evolutionary history tends to make people selfish but also capable of cooperation with others for the welfare of a social unit. Indeed, individual survival sometimes depends crucially on group survival.12 Here there are implications for short-term and long-term self-interests: actions promoting the group might also serve a person’s long-term welfare, but perhaps without external threats people will largely pursue their short-term goals.13 Under these conditions, the leadership process can in part be viewed as an act of persuasion of limited duration while a common goal is pursued and while personal or short-term goals are temporarily set aside for the good of the group. This perspective is useful as one ponders the success and failures of leaders in a variety of settings with the passage of time. Among the interesting questions are: What personal behaviors determine the longevity of leadership? What explains why some leadership is more lasting than others? Are there specific organizational situations that explain longevity of leadership? How difficult is transformational leadership when transactional exchanges (rewards, punishments, and the like) are limited due to the nature of the situation or the organization?
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