The Story of Leadership Research and Development

jeanne-darcTime was when Leadership was not even a subject of thought or study. People were leaders or they weren’t. In point of fact this sort of ‘leadership’ was almost always conferred by class or status. There are some notable exceptions – Joan of Arc and Wat Tyler might fit well into that category – but long before it was ever considered, leadership was generally conferred. This led to the ‘Great Man’ theory – leaders are born, not made. Or put another way, people who display great vision, personality and competence rise to prominence and affect the course of history or business. Equally however, many people who display great vision, personality and incompetence rise to prominence and affect the course of history or business, and not usually for the better so that is not wholly useful. It does however illuminate an important point in looking at leadership research. Which is that much of the research, when examined carefully, tells us more about the attributes needed to get to the top of a hierarchical organisation than anything about how to lead it effectively once you have got there.

The next development was to look for traits that might differentiate leaders from others. This seemed promising, although the initial research identified a very large number of potential ‘leadership traits’. Then someone thought to go back to all the people who had identified, to take one at random, ‘responsible’ as a trait of leaders, and the whole concept unravelled. It turned out that everyone who identified a given trait had a different idea of what they meant by it.

Researchers then turned to styles, giving us a number of variants on ‘people-centered’ versus ‘task-centered’, culminating in the Situational Leadership model of Hersey and Blanchard – an extremely useful concept for dealing with individuals or a small team, but not actually a model of how to lead an organisation.

Richard Boyatzis’ superb study for the American Management Association, published as The Competent Manager, seems off course: surely management is not the same as leadership? But that concept lies a few years ahead yet. And Boyatzis’ conclusion that: “There are transferable management competencies which enable good managers to be effective and which are not to do with technical aspects of the work,” is profound and far-reaching. It was Abraham Zaleznik’s 1977 Harvard Business Review article Managers and Leaders: Are they different? that kicked off the ‘Management vs Leadership’ agenda. Zaleznik’s conclusion was: “Not only do managers and leaders fulfil different functions in an organisation, but the functions are themselves in opposition since managers generally want to preserve the status quo and leaders to change it. Managers and leaders are fundamentally different types of people.” The point about managers wanting to preserve the status quo and leaders wanting to change it is now fairly much taken for granted. Except inasmuch as modern organisations have for many years been trying to inculcate ‘leadership at every level’ – getting managers to act like leaders and look for change and improvement at every opportunity. Nonetheless, Zaleznik may have been more precise than we want to give him credit for. Managers and leaders may indeed be very different people, no matter how much we want people to be able to switch hats whilst staying in the same role.

The story of leadership research and development continues…