Theme Theories of Leadership
Written by Amanda Sinclair, The University of Melbourne
Leadership is a process of influence by which those exercising it support or mobilise people to think and/or act in new ways, towards ends they value. According to scholar, Mary Uhl-Bien, leadership is 'a social influence process through which emergent coordination (i.e. evolving social order) and change (i.e. new values, attitudes, approaches, behaviours, ideologies, etc.) are constructed and produced.' (Uhl-Bien: 228)
Leadership is generally thought to include an interest in change, in challenging the status quo or envisioning a new way forward. In this way, leadership is differentiated from management, where the focus is the ongoing control of resources and tasks. Organisations and social groups usually need both leadership and management capabilities, and often these competencies reside in different people or subgroups. The process of influence in leadership is typically differentiated from that mediated by formal authority or force, though in some cases they may overlap; that is, leadership can be, but need not be, exerted by someone in a position of authority. Leadership therefore can be exercised by individuals located in the middle or at the bottom of organisations, by people without formal authority, as much as by CEOS or prime ministers.
Many contemporary scholars also take pains to distinguish leadership as a phenomenon from the leader as a person. An understanding of leadership as a set of practices, as distributed across a group and collectively achieved, is a relatively recent view. There has been a long history in ideology and practice of thinking about leadership as an individual property. Further, when you ask people about leadership, they often think of individual leaders and the performance of leadership as heroic: tough, out-front decisiveness or 'greatness'. And 'greatness' is a descriptor almost always applied to men.
There is, then, a tension between how scholars suggest we should understand leadership and popular and enduring notions of what leadership looks like and who does it. Despite the cogent arguments in favour of a 'post-heroic' model, the belief in heroic individualistic leadership is remarkably resilient. Joyce Fletcher remarks:
"While the rhetoric about leadership has changed at the macro level, the everyday narrative about leadership and leadership practices-the stories that people tell about leadership, the mythical legends that get passed on as exemplars of leadership behaviour-remain stuck in old images of heroic individualism." (Fletcher: 652)
Further, Fletcher warns against a token acknowledgement of the value of collaborative processes that fail to properly grapple with the gender and power dynamics at stake in the enactment of heroic versus post-heroic leadership.
A Brief History of Leadership
Leadership has become an extraordinarily popular idea over the last few decades and it is widely seen as a 'good'. People demand 'more leadership' and they expect it to fix things. There is not much evidence that it does, but this has little impact on what educational leadership scholar Peter Gronn characterises as leadership's 'canonisation' (Gronn: 269). Our infatuation or 'romance' with leadership remains, despite mixed evidence that leaders make much of a difference. This love affair with leadership is relatively recent. And it is important in any analysis of leadership to understand how and why it has become such an influential normative ideal.
From the late 19th and early 20th centuries, leadership was an idea that was mainly and desultorily discussed by the odd military historian and a few philosophers. In the early 20th century, political scientists such as Harold Lasswell, influenced by Freudian ideas, wrote about psychopathology in leadership: how political leaders might seek out power and the platform of public life to discharge neurotic needs. In his review of the history of leadership thinking, scholar Keith Grint traces modern leadership studies to Thomas Carlyle, rector of Edinburgh University, in 1866. Carlyle's construction of 'leadership was irredeemably masculine, heroic, individualist and normative in orientation and nature' (Grint: 8).
Continuing into the 20th century, understandings of leadership were based on studies of all-male hierarchical environments, such as monastic communities, bureaucracies and the military. As Grint shows, an alarming amount of common wisdom about leadership derives directly from the military, such as the mission-command doctrine of decentralised leadership practised by the German army since at least as early as the 19th century. The belief that the military provides the best training ground and exemplars of leadership continues to the current day, when retired military chiefs are rotated on speaking circuits and brought in to advise companies on leadership. A key finding of research I undertook in the early 1990s was the pervasiveness of metaphors of combat, discussions of leadership being peppered with phrases like 'rallying the troops', 'fighting in the trenches' and a 'take no prisoners' approach (Sinclair 1994, 1998).
With the work of early American management theorists, such as Mary Parker Follet and Chester Barnard in the 1920s and 1930s, leadership started to make its way into the business context and business people began to be represented as doing leadership (Graham). In The Functions of the Executive, first published in the 1930s, Barnard made a strong case for thinking about business leadership as a moral activity. This emphasis on leadership as morally uplifting is a key theme in the very influential work on transformational leadership by James MacGregor Burns in 1978, disseminated widely by other American scholars such as Bernard Bass (discussed below).
The picture of leadership that emerged in the first half of the 20th century was that certain people were 'born' to lead. What became known as the 'trait approach' emphasised a belief that leaders possessed distinctive temperaments and appetites arising from particular personalities, and that these qualities equipped them to lead. Leaders had high levels of drive and ambition, focus and conviction, and the emotional and physical robustness to withstand setbacks and doubts. While two world wars and experience of dictators and megalomaniacs dampened this early enthusiasm for leadership, by the late 1960s and 1970s, American capitalism began again to proselytise business leadership as the route to extending its impact and held up corporate chiefs like Thomas Watson, chief executive officer of IBM, as exemplars of leadership.
Sociologists such as Alvin Gouldner (in the 1950s) and Loren Baritz (in 1960) provided early warnings about the consequences of an American-dominated leadership industry, an elite conglomeration of business, the military and academics who look to the lessons of leadership to retrieve political dominance. Thus scholar Barbara Kellerman observes that the 'leadership industry is an American product … planted in American soil and harvested by American experts' (Kellerman: 10). Contemporary views of leadership continue to reflect prized aspects of American national character, such as individualism, self-reliance, competitiveness, assertiveness and extroversion. These assumptions find their way into leadership theorising, development and training.
From the early 1980s, transformational leadership became perhaps the key idea in leadership theory in what is termed by some 'the new leadership era'. Transformational leaders work by tapping into, and inspiring, the higher motivations of followers, while 'transactional' leaders rely on influencing followers via rewards and sanctions. In his 1978 book, Leadership, political scientist James McGregor Burns argued that transforming leadership 'may convert leaders into moral agents'. Not long after, in their bestseller, Leaders, Bennis and Nanus offered a similarly triumphal view that transformational leaders 'can invent and create institutions … can choose purposes and visions … can create the social architecture that supports them … can move followers to higher degrees of consciousness, such as liberty, freedom, justice and self-actualisation' (Bennis and Nanus: 218).
As part of the enthusiasm for transformational leadership, charisma has also made a comeback. German sociologist Max Weber wrote about charisma with some caution, but recent leadership scholars are enthusiastic. Conger and Kanungo, for example, argue that charismatic leaders:
"transform the nature of work by making it appear more heroic, morally correct, and meaningful … work becomes an opportunity for self and collective expression … The idea is that eventually followers will come to see their organizational tasks as inseparable from their own self-concepts." ( Conger and Kanungo: 17)
The engine-room of leadership research for the last three or four decades has been the United States, and most research and writing on transformational leadership has also come from American scholars. This work has been supported by a sophisticated armoury of psychological testing that was now applied to the selection and training of leaders. Such methods of exploring and analysing leadership are less likely to be anchored in understandings of history, power and social forces. The purposes to which leadership is being put are usually assumed rather than questioned, and, in practice, leadership has been increasingly harnessed to the ambitions of international capital and the military.
Further, recent leadership writing has demonstrated a nostalgia for and subtle return to the idea of leaders possessing identifiable dispositions (if no longer labelled as 'traits'). For example, in 2005, an article by Jim Collins in Harvard Business Review proposed that leaders combine 'fierce resolve' with 'humility', and presented CEOs of large American companies as exemplars (Collins).
These historical turns (and re-turns) in the study of leadership are important to those of us with an interest in women's leadership because they show how leadership as a concept has been consistently construed in highly masculine terms but has also shown itself to be remarkably adaptive. As soon as a powerful critique begins to be mobilised about, for example, elitist leadership, we see emerging a new emphasis on 'collaborative', 'empowered', 'democratic', 'distributed', 'participatory' or 'relational' leadership. Although the theorists advancing these modified concepts of leadership have apparently manifested an interest in reform, often their ideas have been taken up in corporations and elsewhere as a means to make leadership look more enlightened without any real change in the distribution of power. Many of these initiatives provide a veneer of doing leadership differently without any systematic analysis of the reproduction of gendered, racist structures of power and voice. An example is an international list that a UK colleague forwarded to me recently. It asked eminent world scholars to nominate their 'best book on leadership'. Of the 20 listed-all with enormously encouraging titles to do with empowerment and 'servant' leadership-19 were by men, almost all American or English.
Interest in Women's Leadership
An interest in women and leadership gained momentum through the late 1970s and 1980s alongside the rise of second-wave feminism, widespread attention and agitation concerning equal rights and affirmative action legislation. It was also during this period that leadership as an idea was particularly taken up by business schools, management theorists and social psychologists. Whereas, in the past, leadership had been the domain of political scientists, historians, philosophers and military theorists, much of the research and writing about leadership from the 1980s onwards has come from this business-oriented and psychological perspective.
Women managers and the challenges they faced entering the 'foreign country' of male management constituted the focus of early studies. Much of this concern with 'women in management' was 'business oriented, American in origin and in cultural assumptions, often unduly optimistic about the immediate possibilities for change' (Hearn and Parkin: 24).
Further, around this time, a psychological preoccupation became common, with studies focusing on the qualities women needed in management and whether there were enduring sex differences that meant that women and men led and managed differently. The 'sex differences' approach to women in management generated considerable research from the late 1970s. Meta studies concluded that there was little difference due to sex in achievement motivation, risk taking, task persistence and other significant managerial skills.
Hence research has shown that women are not psychologically handicapped for leadership. Rather, they face a barrage of gendered assumptions and stereotypes about their fitness for leadership, which are then translated into discriminatory norms and organisational practices in areas such as recruitment and promotion. Judi Marshall's pioneering book, Women Managers: Travellers in a Male World, documented these practices, showing that it is not women's characteristics that require analysis but the overt and subtle ways women are excluded from leadership. In another ground-breaking contribution, Men and Women of the Corporation (1977), Rosabeth Moss Kanter argued that it was not sex that determined what was happening to women managers, but power, position and the effects of being a token. In the best of the 'women and management' literature, the focus was taken off women and their individual characteristics in favour of providing a more systemic view of the gendered power relations in organisations and society that aim to keep women in subordinated roles and largely responsible for families and children.
By the late 1980s and early 1990s, a new interest specifically focused on women and leadership was emerging, and, again, much of the early work came from American business-oriented researchers. Judy Rosener, writing in Harvard Business Review in 1990, argued that there was now a 'second wave' of women leaders who no longer had to mimic the 'command and control' male model of organisational leadership. Further, they were 'succeeding because of-not in spite of-certain characteristics generally considered to be "feminine" and inappropriate in leaders' (Rosener: 120). Drawing on a 1989 survey of members of the International Women's Forum, Rosener makes the case that these women are 'transformational' or distinctly 'interactive' in their leadership, demonstrating a commitment to making their interactions with subordinates positive for everyone: 'More specifically, the women encourage participation, share power and information, enhance other people's self-worth, and get others excited about their work' (Rosener: 120).This form of leadership is highly effective, she argues, even advantageous, and organisations should be open to it and expand their definitions of effective leadership.
Rosener's argument-that women lead differently from men-predictably elicited controversy. While she made it clear that she felt these differences were due to socialisation and career paths, not innate sex differences, researchers have explored some of the consequences of identifying a female style of leading. One outcome is that research and writing that deplores the effects of stereotyping is employed to create new stereotypes, for example that women are more empathetic and 'people-friendly'. Such new stereotypes are not benign. They are deployed to set higher standards for women in some areas and marginalise them in others. One such effect, which was also taken up in the pages of Harvard Business Review, was the idea of a 'mommy track'-a special, slower career track created for women with family responsibilities. Proponents argued that it was necessary to 'face the facts': that women are the child bearers and, in large part, child rearers. Rather than expect all leaders to travel the same career path, organisations should make alternative tracks available to women with family responsibilities.
Long-time scholar of women's leadership Alice Eagly notes the tensions and contradictions in much of this popular research on women leaders. They are identified as having a 'female advantage': showing up as consistently demonstrating dimensions of transformational leadership such as 'individualised consideration', 'inspirational motivation' and 'intellectual stimulation'. However, women leaders are simultaneously disadvantaged by stereotypes of leadership that generally resemble stereotypes of men, that is agentic, confident, aggressive and self-determined. Eagly concludes: 'men can seem usual or natural in most leadership roles … people more easily credit men with leadership ability and more readily accept them as leaders' (Eagly: 257). She notes that, though prejudices against women leaders dropped significantly from the 1970s and 1980s, there was evidence of plateauing or even reversal of this trend subsequently, especially in traditionally masculine fields.
Feminism and Theories of Leadership
The late 1970s and 1980s saw the emergence of pioneering work by gender scholars and feminists deconstructing organisational and leadership life. Instead of focusing on women as the 'other' who needed to 'learn the ropes', researchers began documenting how organisations and leadership were set up to maintain a gender order where masculinities were privileged. Administrative logic and 'merit-based' principles and practices are not neutral but designed, in the words of Australian scholar Clare Burton, to 'mobilize masculine bias' (Burton). Scholars such as Kathy Ferguson and Joan Acker have been at the forefront of a critique of the patriarchal logic of organisation/bureaucracy itself. In The Feminist Case Against Bureaucracy (1984), Ferguson notes the power of supposedly neutral 'bureaucratic discourse' to 'manipulate, twist, and damage human possibility' in pursuit of capitalist goals (Ferguson: xii). Similarly, Aker (1991) argues that gender assumptions that devalue women are deeply embedded in organisational processes, language and metaphors.
Women scholars have generally been wary of engaging with discourses of leadership, because leadership brings with it the individualised, lionised, masculine performances feminists argue must be problematised. As Jill Blackmore notes in her extensive work on women's educational leadership, the concept of leadership is both 'the problem' and 'the solution' (Blackmore: 5). We cannot ignore the idea of leadership because it is the way of power and legitimacy. At the same time, it is no solution for women just to accept leadership as an unproblematic good and try to measure up to it. Our focus should remain on the structures in which women are located, and which have the power to determine whose performances are recognised as leadership.
Organisational scholars Marta Calas and Linda Smircich have explored the way the word 'leadership' itself has been propagated by male leadership gurus as a form of seduction. Deconstructing sections of texts from leadership authors whose work spans more than fifty years, Calas and Smircich show how each accomplish seduction in historically contextualised ways, meanwhile often presenting themselves as new and urgent knowledge about leadership. For Calas and Smircich, leadership writing is complicit in reinforcing 'the homosocial libidinal economy of competitiveness and glory' as if it were the truth and, indeed, with each new discourse, a kind of deeper and more powerful truth (Calas and Smircich: 593). The work of these two feminist scholars reminds us that concepts like leadership do not stand outside of history. How leadership is defined and understood at any point in time is the result of power and ideology, not truth uncovering.
Efforts by feminists to 're-write' or re-inscribe leadership with the contributions of women come from several places. Feminist standpoint theory has advanced the idea that the perspectives of the marginalised and disempowered are a source of leadership. As Sandra Harding notes, standpoint research seeks to 'study up' by 'reveal[ing] principles and practices of dominant institutions' that can only be understood from the perspective of those 'governed' by them (Harding: 117).
Indigenous and post-colonial scholars have offered powerful critiques of the dominance of elites and institutions such as the World Bank and the mechanisms by which oppression is perpetuated through neo-colonial structures. Chandra Mohanty, for example, argues that genuine decolonisation, allowing for the recovery of authentic indigenous values and culture, is hindered by the embedded 'archive' of Western 'knowledge and systems, rules and values' (Mohanty: 47) . Included in this archive are some Western feminist scholars who have too readily spoken for, and generalised about, the experiences of women leading and organising in other parts of the world.
These scholars have consistently shown that leadership is often done in resistance and refusal from the bottom or the margins of society, rather than from formal positions at the top. Australian Indigenous scholars such as Nerida White and Pat Dudgeon have documented the ways Indigenous women have enacted leadership in the face of the deliberate dehumanising sexism and racism that accompanied colonisation and continues. These scholars document the leadership of Australian women in their resistance, in their humour and in their pride and confidence as women, despite having been treated as chattels.
Other authors (Ianello; Brown; Ferree and Martin) and activists have been interested in organisations created along feminist lines. Guided by values of devolution and inclusivity, some of these organisational forms reject leadership, preferring instead to enact rotated, consultative forms of governing. Others (Chin et al.) emphasise features of devolved, women-centred leadership such as the following:
- Recogition that power structures and institutions are gendered in both overt and more deeply embedded and enduring ways. Women are routinely left out of formal positions of authority and their experiences systematically neglected. However, 'adding women and stirring' will not necessarily provide an enduring solution. What follows from this recognition is an interest in how leadership is exercised from below and within, as well as against, appointed leadership, how strategies of resistance often provide leadership. This view is often underpinned by critiques of capitalism for its privileging of economic values and notions of growth as being the measure of a successful society.
- An acknowledgement of diversity in women's experiences and voices. Following second-wave feminism and a powerful critique of many white women's tendency to act as if they spoke for all women, there is now wide acknowledgement that is important to avoid universalising and essentialising women.
- A rejection of what is seen to be individualistic, heroic, out-front notions of leadership in favour of more distributed, shared and context-determined leadership exemplified in processes of consultation, devolved decision-making, development and empowerment of other women.
- Promotion and integration into leadership and organisations of what are understood as feminine or women's values and ethics, such as putting a value on care and nurturance, especially of the weak, on maternal strength and resilience, and on community and relationships.
- An emphasis on practice, including reflecting on, and interrogating, practices. This view holds that there is not necessarily a 'one right way' and generally supports a commitment to negotiated and devolved practices with all the complexity they bring.
Women's leadership often involves working within, around and underneath institutional, cultural and societal contexts that may be authoritarian, oppressive and hierarchical, gendered and racist. Thus, for many women and as Blackmore and Sachs document, leadership may well involve a process of both 'performing and reforming'; of simultaneously working within existing institutional arrangements and structures while also arguing for new ways of organising and modelling new forms of leading.
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