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About Leadership: Asking the Right Questions


21Feb 2007

The final article on leadership in the January 2007 American Psychologist ,“Asking the Right Questions About Leadership” by J. Richard Hackman and Ruth Wageman, attempts to summarize the issues raised by the authors of the key contributing articles.

Hackman & Wageman suggest that a new set of questions need to be asked to better understand leadership. They contrast previously asked questions, with the new questions they suggest.

  1. We shouldn’t ask, “Do leaders make a difference?”, but “Under what conditions does leadership matter?” The authors note that we often attribute the cause of change (positively or negatively) too much to the leader of an organization (known as “leader attribution error”). Rather, research suggests that leaders have the greatest impact when organizational opportunities are scarce but slack resources are plentiful.
  2. The question isn’t “What are the traits of leaders?”, but “How do leaders’ personal characteristics interact with situational factors to shape outcomes?” Research seems to clearly demonstrate it is the interaction between a leader’s traits and the situation in which they find themselves that makes the difference. Unfortunately (from my point of view), however, researchers have not done much to identify individual traits with specific situations. One point does seem clear – trying to use the same strategy in all situations does not provide long-term successful leadership (sometimes psychologists [myself included] are wizards at stating the obvious).
  3. Don’t ask “Do there exist common dimensions on which all leaders can be compared?”, but “Are good and poor leadership qualitatively different?” Research findings seem to be suggesting that there is no single dimension which differentiates good and poor leaders. Rather, it appears that leadership is a combination of factors linked together. Thus, good leaders do not only have good ability to use their intelligence, creativity and knowledge to bring about good decisions, but they must also have communication and interpersonal skills to influence others.
  4. The real question is not “How do leaders and followers differ?”, but “How can leadership models be reframed so they treat all members of the system as both leaders and followers? The point is – leaders lead, but they are also influenced by their followers. And every follower is, at least theoretically, also a leader. In fact, some studies suggest that anyone who fulfills critical functions (or arranges for them to be fulfilled) is exhibiting leadership. And, as anyone who has served in an organization knows – one does not have to be in a leadership position to provide leadership.
  5. Don’t ask, “What should be taught in leadership courses?”, but “How can leaders be helped to learn?” One researcher suggests that leadership training should explore the leaders’ own preferred leadership strategies and then investigate the conditions under which those strategies are and are not appropriate (falling back to the interaction model between traits and situations).

One really interesting point to me, given my belief in the importance of emotional intelligence was the following:

“Leading well … may require a considerable degree of emotional maturity in dealing with one’s own and others’ anxieties. Emotionally mature leaders are willing and able to move toward anxiety-arousing states of affairs in the interest of learning about them, rather than moving away from them to get anxieties reduced as quickly as possible. Moreover, such leaders are able to inhibit impulses to act (e.g. to correct an emerging problem or to exploit a suddenly appearing opportunity) until more data have appeared or until … members become open to the contemplated intervention. Sometimes it is even necessary for leaders to engage in actions that temporarily raise anxieties, including their own, to lay the groundwork for the subsequent interventions that seek to foster learning or change.”

Final Thoughts

So this is the last of the articles in the American Psychologist issue on leadership I reviewed. After summarizing the articles, I have some reflections to share.

As psychologists, maybe we are now asking the “right” questions, but the dearth of research completed on these issues is discouraging.

The reporting of the research feels somewhat like a theoretical exercise, saying:

-we really don’t much about leadership (from a research point of view)

-a lot of our prior research hasn’t shown us much;

-it appears that we have been asking the wrong questions for the past 30 years;

-we now know (what we believe are) better questions to be

asking and answering;

-it may be a long time (and difficult) to achieve any good answers to the new set of questions.

Practically speaking, I want to know:

  1. Can I become a better leader? (I think we generally assume we can improve ourselves)
  2. If so, how?
  3. On what basis should I select a person who is going to serve in a leadership position?
  1. What can be done to improve the leadership behaviors of those who are developing leaders?

As often is the case, it appears that psychologists are better in asking questions than they are answering them definitively.

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