As we survey the path leadership theory has taken

Toward a Synthesis: What Do We Know About Leadership?

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Toward a Synthesis: What Do We Know About Leadership?

The distinctive, or even disjointed, nature of the various pieces of leadership research makes it difficult to summarize comprehensively what has been posited over the past century. Inductive or quantitative studies have illuminated isolated leadership behaviors and patterns, but as a group they do not provide much of global picture of the larger, and inherently more interesting, problem of the structure of the leadership and followership processes. In spite of literally thousands of studies, broad qualitative and comprehensive approaches to the study of leadership such as Burns’ Leadership or Howard Gardner’s Leading Minds in fact remain fairly rare, even though these are the sorts of inquiries that would bring some overarching insights to the issue. Ironically, there is lack of consensus even about the major questions. In spite of the problems of summarization, it is useful to attempt to lay out what is known about leadership and followership and in the process to develop a framework to inform the analysis of the six cases that follow.

First, the research increasingly concludes that leadership is persuasion and not domination or power.14 This conclusion would seem relevant in any setting, from the military (as Shakespeare’s Henry V shows) to the for-profit sector and beyond. This element of leadership is particularly compelling in an organizational setting such as the university, where stakeholders are so varied and where so many of them—including the faculty—have great independence of action relative to other settings. From interviews with presidents, top administrative officers, and student leaders, March and Cohen find that people believe university presidents are much more powerful than they actually are.15 However, much of presidents’ time is taken up with “royal” activities: receiving visitors or petitions, giving formal approvals, and appearing at meetings and functions of various sorts. Most of these activities are reactive. So persuasion is even more important in these types of organizations than in others where leaders are more powerful and in actual control of processes.

Until recently, moreover, the prototypical American worker has been a white Anglo male with a high school diploma and a job in manufacturing. But recent years have witnessed an amazing change in the American worker: most of the new labor market entrants are now not white males but rather women and minorities such as Hispanics. Educational levels are increasing and the management of a vastly diverse pool of skilled workers will be a new demand on leadership, one that will require more familiarity with less familiar forms of behavior and communication.16

Leadership is fundamentally a temporary activity, even aside from obvious biological limits on life. History suggests that without some external stimuli or threat to a group, people within the group will tend to pursue their own short-term interests over the longer run.17 This was poignantly demonstrated than in the case of Winston Churchill, an amazingly effective war leader, when he was voted out of office as prime minister shortly after the conclusion of World War II. Leadership thus entails persuading, not coercing, other people to set aside for some time their individual needs and pursue some goal or goals.

But what goals and, perhaps more importantly, whose goals, should be pursued? For both Burns and Heifetz, leadership involves a reciprocal effort between leaders and followers to mobilize resources and do something that is socially useful. In the case of Burns, socially useful goals are those that elevate followers to a higher moral level, such as Kennedy’s call to help one’s country or Gandhi’s appeal for peaceful resistance to an unjust social and legal system. The central responsibility of leadership in Heifetz’s view is to carry out the adaptive work that highlights what matters the most to the group and that begins to reconcile and eliminate differences and obstacles within the group. What about, more specifically, leadership in an organization like the modern university, with its diversity of stakeholders and with quasi-free agents as the primary employees?

According to March and Cohen almost any educated person could deliver a talk on the goals of the university, and nearly no one in the university would want to hear it.18 This follows from their model of the university as an “organized anarchy,” where goals are neither clear nor widely accepted and agreed upon, where the technology (how things are done) is familiar but unclear, and where there is inadequate knowledge about who is attending to what and where major participants wander in and out. While there is a certain allure to this provocative description of the university as an organization, it is surely more of a caricature than it is a realistic description. Many goals are clear, well understood, and widely accepted, at least internally within the university. Budgetary goals, for example, fit this category, (especially when they concern higher salaries), as do goals about building construction and about the strengthening of the teaching or research functions. Still, the university often will make choices without the benefit of consistent, shared goals. Increased turnover at the top of the organization, such as has been occurring during the last decade especially in the major public universities, tends to compound these challenges: “middle managers” (deans and department heads) often will delay actions in response to managerial uncertainty in higher levels of the organization.19 These factors do not make the university a disorganized or a bad place, as Cohen and March note, but they do make it difficult to describe and, more importantly, to lead.

The Leader

Among the antecedent factors in leaders generally common to the analyses of Burns, Heifetz, and Gardner that make leadership and followership possible are:

  • the evolutionary roots of authority in humans

  • early childhood experiences of future leaders, including the relatively new topic of resiliency

  • formal education in domains and the impact of mentors

  • adult characteristics of leaders, including gifts in the realms of communication and interpersonal understanding

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