As we survey the path leadership theory has taken

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March 15, 2004

Chapter I

As we survey the path leadership theory has taken,

we spot the wreckage of “trait theory,” the “great man” theory,

and the “situationist” critique, leadership styles, functional leadership, and, finally,

leaderless leadership, to say nothing of bureaucratic leadership, charismatic leadership, group-centered leadership, reality-centered leadership, leadership by objective, and so on.

The dialectic and reversals of emphases in this area very nearly rival

the tortuous twists and turns of child-rearing practices,

and one can paraphrase Gertrude Stein by saying, “a leader is a follower is a leader.”

Administrative Science Quarterly

(quoted in Bennis, On Becoming a Leader)

This book is about the phenomenon of leadership, using the university as the organizational lens through which to view and understand it. Leadership patterns and behaviors are examined through detailed cases of six well-known university leaders of recent times and the interaction between these leaders, their followers, and their organizational situations are at the center of the analysis. These three elements—the individual leader, the followers, and the situational and organizational contexts within which interactions between leaders and followers occur—are inextricably linked. This chapter lays out a basic framework around which to examine the six cases of the selected university leaders and includes a review of the various principal approaches or streams of research taken by leadership scholars. It also discusses the use of quantitative and qualitative methods in understanding leadership and followership.

On Leadership

The study of leadership is both an art and a science, a trip involving multiple disciplines and a range of qualitative and quantitative approaches. Its disciplinary roots stem from social psychology, sociology, psychology (behaviorist, cognitive, and psychoanalytical), organizational behavior, business management, literature, anthropology, and other fields. Social and organizational psychology, for example, focus on leaders in small groups and complex organizations while political science and psycho-historians concentrate fairly exclusively on world and national political leaders. It is a legitimate field of study, but it also a young one with considerable lack of consensus about the major questions. However, lack of consensus and an absence of a comprehensive and grand theory do not necessarily invalidate the study of leadership as a serious scholarly topic. After all, the more “mature” discipline of physics is also without a general theory. In The Elegant Universe Brian Greene describes the century-old argument among physicists around the currently irreconcilable differences between the laws of the large—general relativity—and the laws of the small—quantum mechanics.1 The search for this unified field theory in physics is what consumed Einstein’s quixotic efforts during the last 30 years of his life, all in an effort to show that these distinct forces were part of an overarching whole. Einstein was, as Greene points out, ahead of his time once more and physicists are now focusing on “superstring” theory (strings are microscopically tiny loops of energy that lie deep within all matter) as the framework that could tie modern physics together.

The scope of what has been written about leadership presents a challenge of distillation and synthesis if one is to avoid a representation that is too simplistic, too trivial, or too much of a condensation. An amazingly diverse array of books and articles has been written about the topic of leadership—over 8,000 by 1990, according to the most recent edition of a reference book by Bass and Stodgill (Handbook of Leadership: Bass, 1990).2 Thus, to discuss leadership systematically and comprehensively takes some courage, particularly because theories purporting to be general are vulnerable to a critical mugging and leave theorists notoriously exposed to the probing of experimental researchers. Given these concerns, where should an analysis of leadership begin? More specifically to the purposes of this study, how can a conceptual framework be developed around and through which to discuss and examine fruitfully the six cases presented here?

One can always turn to ancient writers for insights on virtually any topic, including leadership. Indeed, many classical works contain most of the leadership topics and issues being studied in the various disciplines today. For example:

  • Sophocles’ play, Antigone, talks about the psychology of leadership and female leadership in particular

  • Homer’s Iliad and the Odyssey contain detailed biographies of leaders, including the influence of mentorship

  • Plutarch’s Lives examines what makes leaders behave the way they do

  • Shakespeare’s Othello explores the role of intuition in leadership and the Henriad, and Henry V in particular, offer original insights on power and leadership styles (many of which have been echoed in contemporary films like Braveheart and The Patriot)

  • Machiavelli’s The Prince reminds leaders that “nothing is more difficult...more perilous...or more uncertain in its success, than to take the lead in the introduction of a new order of things.”

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