Leadership Research Is Naive

There is something very naïve about the leadership literature.

For more than a year, I have been engaged in a comprehensive review of the academic literature related to the leadership of change.   Since there are very few articles that deal specifically with the leadership of change, the job required delving into both the change and leadership literatures.  It has been an eye opening experience.

Virtually none of the change literature deals with leadership.  It does, however, point out that change is a dynamic process that occurs over time and recognizes that any successful non-trivial change is never the product of a single person.  And it is this point which shows the leadership literature is, at best, naïve.

The overwhelming majority of leadership research focuses on a single individual – the “hero” – who is seen as responsible for all outcomes.  In many cases, this same “individual logic” is used to explain why change is successful and to propose that certain types of leaders, e.g., transformational leaders, are better at leading change than other types.

Unfortunately, this very same literature treats change as a simple one-time event, not the dynamic and often complex process it is, and ignores how leaders actually go about either facilitating or frustrating change.  The implication is that if you get the leader with the right style, it will all work out.  Sorry, but that is just plain naïve.

Combining the change literature with the leadership literature indicates significant shortcomings in each.  However, the most shocking discovery is that the leadership literature fails to consider the actual process of leading over time and the ways that leaders and followers actually create outcomes together.  If we want successful organization change, it is time we give up our hero worship and begin paying attention to leadership interactions over the course of an entire change.


Where are the Missing Managers?

Managers are missing.  Organizations apparently have plenty of leaders, but few managers.

I know this is true because the leadership literature says so. Over the last two years, we have been doing extensive research on the academic leadership literature as it relates to leadership of change.  One of the consistent findings is that people who are in positions of authority, which includes everyone from the CEO down to the lowest supervisors, are considered leaders by virtue of their positions and are evaluated on their “leadership style”.

So, here’s the question, if everyone in a position of authority is a leader, where are the managers?  Maybe managers are the people in positions of authority who scored low on leadership evaluations (we have not found any study that comes right out and says that).  Or maybe managers don’t exist in organizations because everyone is a leader (more or less).  Or maybe they are just mythical creatures created to give people who study leadership someone to disparage.

The popular belief is that there is a shortage of leaders (at least good ones) and that if we had more and better leaders, things would be fine.  That may be true, but not without managers – people who actually practice management. Too bad there aren’t any of those people anymore.

Some researchers propose that leadership and management are complementary, but much of today’s writing on leadership puts management down as unimportant or “cookie cutter” work.  Some academic research on leadership says managers just maintain the status quo and are only “transaction oriented”.  Leaders do what’s right, and managers…well they do something else.

Seems in these challenging times it would be useful to have a few more good managers, but we’d probably have to give them a better reputation for what they actually do to deliver organizational performance.


The Lie in Leadership

It is popular to blame leaders for the state of affairs in organizations, communities, nations, and the world, particularly when things don’t go the way we want.  If the US Supreme Court makes a ruling we like, then they are showing leadership, but if they make one we don’t like, they are failing to lead.  The same can be said for President Obama, Speaker Boehner, any Senator, etc.  Simply put, we blame our current state of affairs (good, bad, or ugly) on leaders.  But this blame hides the lie in leadership.

There is no leadership without followership.  Said differently, whenever there is a “failure of leadership”, there is a corresponding “failure of followership”.  When Speaker Boehner accuses President Obama of not leading (or vice versa), what he is really saying is “I am not following”.  But to say “I not following” takes responsibility and makes one accountable for their actions.  To say “s/he is not leading” absolves me of responsibility and gets me off the hook – better to be a victim and blame their lack of leadership than responsible for my lack of followership.

The lie in leadership is that leadership somehow causes followership and makes things happen without followership.  It doesn’t.  Followership is a choice we each make and we are responsible for who and what we follow.



The Two Sides of Leadership

There are two sides to leadership: the constructive side and the destructive side.  Both are evident in organizations, but only one seems to get all the attention.

Implicit in contemporary approaches to leadership, particularly the leadership of change, is the assumption that leaders are a constructive force that have a positive impact on organization and employee performance.  As a result, the overwhelming emphasis in leadership research and development is on the factors associated with effective, successful, or constructive leadership. The implication in these approaches is that ineffective leadership is simply the absence of the factors associated with effective leadership.  But this is an inaccurate and incomplete view of leadership.

Under such terms as “abusive supervisors”, “petty tyrants”, “bad leadership”, “toxic leaders”, “intolerable bosses”, “derailed leaders”, and “brutal bosses“, researchers have investigated the “dark side” of leadership (Conger, 1990) and have found that leaders can and do take actions and engage in behaviors that are destructive to the organization and/or the people who work in them. This research indicates that that destructive leadership includes behaviors that go beyond simply the absence of effective leadership behaviors to include such actions as arbitrariness, belittling of others, lack of consideration, and a forcing style of conflict resolution.  Among the impacts of destructive leadership are such negative outcomes as reduced employee commitment and satisfaction, revenge and retaliation, lower performance and work unit cohesiveness, and high frustration, stress, reactance, and helplessness among subordinates.

Interestingly, some researchers propose it is possible for the same leaders to be constructive in one setting or situation and destructive in another (Einarsen, Aasland, & Skogstad, 2007).  In my research on the leadership of change, it is apparent that leaders who are typically constructive can, during a change, engage in actions that are destructive to the change, the people implementing the change, and even to themselves.  Among the results of such actions are the loss of leader credibility and increased resentment, cynicism, and resistance to change by those implementing the change.  Ironically, the resistance to change leaders complain about may well be the product of their own destructive actions.

To fully understand leadership, particularly the leadership of change, requires we consider both sides of leadership and how they impact each other.  Idiosyncratic credit theory suggests that typically constructive leaders are likely to be forgiven for “destructive mistakes” that damage trust, particularly if they use closure conversations to acknowledge and apologize for the mistakes.  However, there may be a limit to how many destructive actions a constructive leader can take before it begins undermining their leadership.

Some References:

Conger, J. A. 1990. The dark side of leadership. Organizational Dynamics, 19(2): 44-55.

Einarsen, S., Aasland, M. S., & Skogstad, A. 2007. Destructive leadership behaviour: A definition and conceptual model. The Leadership Quarterly, 18: 207-216.

Lombardo, M. M., & McCall, M. W. J. 1984. Coping with an intolerable boss. Greensboro, N.C.: Center for Creative Leadership.

McCall, M. W. J., & Lombardo, M. M. 1983. Off the track: Why and how successful executives get derailed. Greensboro, N.C.: Center for Creative Leadership.


It’s What You Deliver That Matters

I recently played golf with someone I didn’t know prior to our playing together.  As we walked down the first fairway, he asked, “What do you do?” Asking people what they do is a polite and socially acceptable way of getting to know them.  It’s completely normal and completely appropriate. But in the workplace, what you do is not as important as what you deliver.

“Doing” is about action and activity; “deliver” is about what is handed over to someone after the doing is done.  Generally the things handed over are products (things like reports, computers, invoices, software), services (like training, consulting, appointments, performance reviews), and communications (requests, promises, authorizations).  For example, one of the things I do as a professor is teach classes.  What I deliver are lectures, presentations, exams, assignments, reading lists, and grades.

My students interact with the products, services, and communications I deliver to them.  If I deliver poorly worded exam questions, they don’t care much about the work that went into writing them, only that they have a hard time trying to figure the questions out.  If my lectures are unintelligible and hard to understand, my students don’t care what I had to do to prepare them.  Ultimately my performance in the classroom is determined by what I deliver to my students, not all the things I do in preparing the class.

I have learned that what really matters to people is what gets deliver.  When what is delivered to people “works” (meets their requirements in terms of form, quality, quantity, and time), they are satisfied and more likely to see the deliverer as a credible and reliable performer.  However, when what is delivered doesn’t work, people get upset, complain, and can even retaliate by becoming less cooperative.


Where Is the Access to Leadership?

For the past several months, I have been conducting research into the leadership of change to learn more about the role leadership plays in successful change.  Frankly, I have been disappointed in what I have found.  More accurately, I have been disappointed in what I haven’t found – an access to leadership.

The primary focus of leadership research and writing seems to be dominated by a conception of leadership as associated with someone in a formal position of leadership (i.e., authority) and by a focus on the extrinsic outcomes of the characteristics or behaviors of the leader.  Accordingly, attention is given to identifying the characteristics and/or behaviors that differentiate effective leaders from ineffective leaders on the assumption that once identified, we can select or train leaders for these characteristics or behaviors, thereby improving leadership.

What I find troubling about this approach, however, is that it says nothing about the source of the behaviors leaders exhibit or how one might gain access to those behaviors.  Knowing what respect is and that effective leaders show respect does not mean that I can show respect when it is needed or that I can show it in an appropriate or acceptable way.  There is not a one-to-one correspondence between any personality characteristic, cognitive capability, affective orientation, or situational condition and any leader behavior.  What this means is that none of these factors are THE source or cause of leader behaviors and learning them will not make me a leader or necessarily more effective.

No, I think we are missing something and I think it has to do with the idea that the actions we take and the behaviors we engage in are a function of how situations and people occur to us.  In their book, The Three Laws of Performance, Zaffron and Logan point out that how people perform is not determined by the objective nature of the situation, but rather is correlated with how the situation occurs to them.  If, for example, the actions and behaviors of another occur as resistance to a change agent, the agent is likely to respond much differently than if those same actions and behaviors occur as a contribution to improving the change.

The idea that one’s actions correlate with how situations occur suggests that the access to leader behaviors, in both form and quality, is to be found in how things occur for people.  It also suggests that leaders can alter their behaviors, in both form and quality, by learning how to shift the way situations occur.  Zaffron and Logan have some ideas on how to do that that may be worth pursuing.


It Doesn’t Exist If It Isn’t Written Down

If you want to increase your personal leadership effectiveness, then you may want to adopt the following policy: It doesn’t exist if it isn’t written down.

Most people are familiar with the cliché “out of sight, out of mind”.  One way to interpret this cliché is that if we don’t have some way of remembering things (“out of sight”), then they effectively do not exist for us – they are, for all practical purposes, gone.  You may not have noticed before now, but you can’t work on things that are “out of mind” because they don’t exist – they simply aren’t there to be worked on.

When I say it doesn’t exist, I don’t just mean you can’t remember it.  I mean you don’t even know that there is any thing to be remembered. Rather, it is gone without a trace as if it never existed in the first place.

Unfortunately, too many people rely on their memory for keeping track of things.  I say unfortunately because our short terms memories are a very poor place for storing information and once something is forgotten, we may never be able to recall it.  And, if it can’t be recalled, it can’t be used or accomplished, thereby limiting our effectiveness.  At the time it is happening, however, it is difficult to imagine (even if we allowed ourselves to) that we could possibly forget what we saw or heard.

The above policy (1) acknowledges that we can, do, and will forget things, and (2) that there is a way to keep things around so that when they do go “out of mind”, they can reliably be found again.  Writing things down keeps them in existence independent of our memory and reduces the likelihood we will fail to perform because of something we “forgot”.

Adopting this policy will require the development of three new habits.  One is reliably writing things down, even those things you are sure you won’t forget.  One reason people feel stressed is because they don’t know if they forgot something they shouldn’t have.  A second habit is reliably writing things down in the same place, like a journal or inventory of some kind.  It does little good to write things down all over the place (e.g., napkins, scrap pieces of paper, etc.) if you then can’t easily find them when you need them.  The third habit is regularly reviewing what you have recorded.  Again, a comprehensive list is of little value if you don’t look at it.


Where Do You Keep Your Word after You Give It?

I believe a cornerstone of personal leadership effectiveness is operating with integrity.  Michael Jensen, the Jesse Isidor Straus Professor of Business Administration, Emeritus, at Harvard Business School contends that without integrity, nothing works. Jensen defines integrity as honoring your word, which means that (1) you keep your word, and (2) just as soon as you are aware you will not be keeping your word, notifying everyone impacted that you will not be keeping your word and dealing responsibly with the consequences (for a more detailed discussion see “Integrity: A Positive Model that Incorporates the Normative Phenomena of Morality, Ethics and Legality” at http://ssrn.com/abstract=920625).

It is clear that every time we make a promise, regardless of how big or small it may be or to whom we make it, we give our word.  It is probably less clear, however, that we also give our word every time we accept a promise.  When we accept a promise, we give our word to the person making the promise to receive whatever has been promised by the time it has been promised.

Making and accepting promises creates occasions for honoring our word and raises an important issue: “Where do we keep track of our promises so that we might honor them?”  We cannot reliably honor the promises we have made, or reliably hold others accountable for the promises they have made to us, if we do not have a record of the promises made.

Many people keep “To Do Lists” in which they record the things they want to do, but few of us keep “Due Lists” in which we record the promises we have made or accepted.  Unfortunately, too many of us keep our promises in our memory, which is notoriously unreliable.  The result is that we forget promises, making us look incompetent, political, or inconsistent.

By keeping our promises in something like a “Due List”, we increase the likelihood of remembering what we have given our word to and the chances of honoring our word.  This, in turn,  increases our credibility, trustworthiness, and effectiveness.


Leadership of Change: Do Steps Trump Style?

When it comes to the leadership of change, which is more important, leadership style or following the “right” steps for implementation?

For the past several months, I have been conducting research into the leadership of change.  My interest is in finding out what differentiates effective leading of change from ineffective.  Although my research is far from complete, I have found something you might find interesting – the leadership of change has a much different focus than leadership in general.

One of the hallmarks of general leadership is “leadership style”.  At the heart of leadership style is the idea that leaders have a particular way or pattern of leading and that not all patterns are appropriate or effective in all situations.  Leaders who are very production or task oriented, for example, will tend to be more effective in situations where getting things done is paramount than will leaders who are more affinity or relationship oriented.  Based on this literature, one would expect that the effective leadership of change would also involve leadership style, but it doesn’t.

In the literature on change leadership, such as John Kotter’s book Leading Change, the focus is on steps, not style.  More specifically, the focus is on identifying the “right steps” or the “right process(es)”, which if fully and appropriately followed, will result in the successful implementation of change.  Apparently, when it comes to change, it is not the leader’s personal style that matters, but the steps they use in conducting change.

What I find interesting about the steps approach to change leadership is that it ignores the very extensive literature on general leadership which indicates that how leaders treat and interact with followers matters.  The steps approach implies that no matter what a leader’s style might be, or how ineffective it is on a daily basis, it won’t matter when it comes to change as long as they fully and appropriately implement the right steps.

Come on, are they serious?  Are they really saying that steps trump style?  Does anyone really believe that a jerk of a leader can successfully engage people in a change if she simply follows the right steps?  It would seem a marriage of the two approaches would give a more complete picture of what is required for the effective leadership of change, but so far I have not found such a marriage.


Does Authority Reduce Leader Effectiveness?

MBA students frequently tell me they would be far more effective if only they had authority over certain people.  Unfortunately, years of research, such as a forthcoming study in Organization Science, indicates that having authority may actually reduce a manager’s effectiveness, not improve it.

When managers have authority over resources important to subordinates (e.g., hiring and firing, pay, job assignments, vacation time, etc.), they tend to assume they do not have to persuade or convince subordinates of their assessments of a situation.  For example, if a manager believes an event, such as a work delay or a change in priorities or requirements poses a threat to the successful completion of a project, she is likely to assume that all that is needed is to communicate the threat and her subordinates will take the appropriate action.  In this regard, managers are blind to the fact that their subordinates see things from a different point of view and will not automatically accept what they are told.

According to the study in Organization Science, when a threat occurs, managers with authority engage in fewer redundant and more delayed communications than managers lacking that authority.  As a result, their initial communications regarding a threat are ineffective 72% of the time, thereby requiring subsequent and more time consuming follow up communications.  The need for these additional communications can have a negative impact on the managers’ credibility and reputation, thereby increasing the chances that future communications will also not be heeded.

Authority can help managers get things done.  However, authority is not a substitute for appropriate and complete communication.  Where managers assume there is such a substitution, their effectiveness will be reduced.