A thought for the day: ‘What do we really know about leadership?’

Having looked at research on leadership, I have concluded that current writing indicates more about traits that lead to effective work practices and timing one’s entry and exit to successful situations then it does about leadership per se. Much of the work is cliché and focuses on how one creates engagement or a pleasant work environment. Moderating effects such as economic climate, ease or attractiveness of industry, and calibre of those being led is rarely discussed. Research that relates leadership to long-term outcomes, such as a sustainable business model over 10-15 years, is rare.

The result of this is that we get to know, for example, how someone helped a company at a given point in time, but the cause and effect of that behaviour is not necessarily substantiated. Reviewing the literature, good leaders are often those with impeccable timing and the resources (both people and profit) to look good.

This is not to say that there is nothing in leadership as a concept. On the contrary, leadership is the most important factor facing most businesses today as they try and negotiate these tough times. What makes someone a good leader, and how this can be learnt or at least predicted (moderating for current time and place effects, and avoiding the capture of cliché concepts), is still unclear.

I’m not unique in seeing leadership as one of the most important issues faced by organizations today. Developing strong empirical models that are independent of the moderator of context and time will be needed before I’m convinced of a solidified model of leadership. The starting point is, as always, research. With this in mind, the January 2007 issue of American Psychologist is a good starting point as it is devoted to the topic of Leadership.

  1. Foreword to the Special Issue on Leadership
    By Sternberg, Robert J.
    American Psychologist. (2007), 62(1) 1
  2. The Challenges of Leadership in the Modern World: Introduction to the Special Issue
    By Bennis, Warren
    American Psychologist. (2007), 62(1), pp. 2-5
  3. Trait-Based Perspectives of Leadership
    By Zaccaro, Stephen J.
    American Psychologist. (2007), 62(1), pp. 6-16
  4. The Role of the Situation in Leadership
    By Vroom, Victor H.; Jago, Arthur G.
    American Psychologist. (2007), 62(1), pp. 17-24
  5. Promoting More Integrative Strategies for Leadership Theory-Building
    By Avolio, Bruce J.
    American Psychologist. (2007), 62(1), pp. 25-33
  6. A Systems Model of Leadership: WICS
    By Sternberg, Robert J.
    American Psychologist. (2007), 62(1), pp. 34-42