I still hear discussions of Steve Jobs and his amazing contribution to the success of Apple. Although inspiring, it confirms my suspicions that we haven’t yet captured all we need to know about effective leadership. Strong leaders such as Jobs are often an enigma — and unraveling the source of their strength is critical as we move forward. His leadership skills possessed some of the nuances, and often unquantifiable elements of leadership, that we strive to capture. However — these legendary tales don’t seem to help us develop emerging leaders.
Current leadership theory (and accompanying practices) may not be robust enough for those interested in organizational success, to forge confident predictions about needed leader skills. Moreover, this lack of confidence directly impacts the “state of the opinion” surrounding the selection and development of our leaders. This essentially affects all of us going forward.
We may need to shift our focus (develop a framework, so to speak), that may help us sort through all of the excellent information that currently exists.
A Debate for the Decades
Leadership is one of the most well researched workplace topics, and with good reason. Relevant theories of leadership have the potential to have limitless impact upon organizations and their employees. There is a great body of existing theory and research — from the “great man” and trait theories — to transformational leadership and forward. However, are leadership theories clearly expressing what organizations really need to move forward? The answer may be no.
Here is what we might need to examine, to move forward effectively:
- A dynamic view of leadership. There has been an emphasis long-standing on the specific, individual attributes of leaders. (The list is endless.) But that may be distracting us from the larger, more dynamic view of leadership. We may need to step back and take a much broader view that examines a leader’s overall ability to flex in response to the varying situations and stressors they may encounter. Organizational needs change rapidly, which requires a leader to change their approach as well. For example, we might refocus on the notion of a leader’s skill to develop the right “script” for a specific leadership challenge.
- Leader-culture match. Identifying an merging leader through succession planning or hiring an industry star is one thing. Being sure the leader can navigate the organization and gain acceptance is another. Does the prospective leader have the capacity to absorb to the prevailing organizational mindset and represent that group? (Think of the debacle at Time, Inc.) Culture of the organization is no longer on the fringes, but a critical element to consider in leader selection. If a potential leader cannot represent that culture and embody vision, it is unwise to move forward.
- Training & development opportunities. By and large, if a theory doesn’t contribute to leadership development efforts within organizations, it seems relegated to a “read only, great to know” status. Descriptive theories are necessary, but more of a focus on useable training points is needed. Moreover, these experiences should not exclusively take place in a classroom setting. For example, does exposure to extremely challenging assignments and situations (as Jobs was) enhance a potential leader’s skill set?
- An integrative approach. Obviously, leaders do not lead in a vacuum. An approach that considers not only the leader, but followers, customers and external conditions is needed. As discussed in the American Psychologist (Avolio, 2007), integrating these elements is the future of leadership theory.
As organizations strive to innovate and remain competitive, effective theories of leadership will remain a focus. Hopefully, theories will continue to evolve and capture the synergy of elements contributing to leader success.