Exactly what is leadership? (Part II)

Last week’s post on leadership was so popular that I  thought it appropriate to follow up with a second post on the same topic.

Since leadership is, at its core, an interpersonal waltz, veteran and novice leaders must recognize that leadership is not one-dimensional. In simple terms, leaders must take a multifaceted approach to the act of leading. A leader who acknowledges that the complexity of one’s leadership style must complement the situation in which he/she finds themselves as a leader, possesses a distinct and lasting advantage. One’s leadership style must be flexible and responsive to the environment in which the leader practices leadership.

Allow me to use a metaphor to illustrate the multi-dimensional nature of leadership. I often compare leading with a parochial focus on a single leadership style with driving a vehicle with a manual transmission on the interstate in first gear. Not only will the driver become the immediate recipient of a great deal of feedback from the machine in the form of noise, smoke, and an overwhelming burning smell, it won’t take very long to burn the clutch and cause irreparable harm to the transmission. Leadership is the transmission that drives the organization toward its desired outcomes. For that reason, organizations benefit from having a leader who drives the function of the organization through a variety of leadership approaches, shifting from one gear/style in a judicious manner with a focus on organizational capacity and productivity. So, what is the distinct and lasting advantage for the leader who both acknowledges and practices multi-dimensional leadership? He/she is able to drive the organization toward its desired outcomes without burning out and disenfranchising the follower-ship.

The professional literature on leadership cautions leaders and “textbook students” of leadership of the inherent danger of leading with an unyielding devotion to a single leadership style. Because one’s leadership style must be as multifaceted as the complexity of the leadership challenge itself, an effective leader must be conversant in a variety of leadership approaches in order to advance organizational progress. In the next few pages, I will present eleven leadership approaches which conscientious leaders might practice at appropriate phases in their leadership life cycle. Each leadership style, its description, and theorist will be presented with correlating benefits and drawbacks.

At its core, authoritarian leadership, coined by Larry Lezotte, is about the position/title held by the leader rather than the leader’s knowledge or capacity to lead the organization toward its expressed goals/outcomes. The function of the organization led by an authoritarian leader is driven by a top-down approach to managing the follower-ship. Consequently, the work environment is characterized by a militaristic culture, wherein followers adhere to established policy and procedure without challenging the status quo. Although, on the surface, the organization appears to function properly, a closer look might reveal a culture of fear and frustration among the follower-ship. To the detriment of organizational progress, there is often no audience for innovative ideas, resulting in the organization becoming increasingly unable to adapt to an ever-evolving external environment. Over time, organizations with an authoritarian orientation become outdated relics representative of an era gone by.

Authoritative leadership, not to be conflated with authoritarian leadership, was theorized by Ron Edmonds. An authoritative leader is viewed, by followers, as an expert able to clearly define the goals that will lead the organization toward its outcomes. The expertise of the leader is foundation of his authority and drives the function of the organization. An authoritative leader is able to establish clear roles and boundaries that help followers to become and remain focused on the work. Although an authoritative approach to leading can promote on-task behaviors, the organization’s momentum can easily become a function of one person, breeding co-dependency and instability. The organization can weaken precipitously should the follower-ship begin to doubt the leader or when a new, less knowledgeable leader takes the helm.

Charismatic leadership, coined by Max Weber, is an approach to leadership wherein the personality of the leader drives the function of the organization. The leader’s nature and temperament inspires the people; and as a result, productivity typically occurs rapidly.  Morale and creativity is spurred among the follower-ship, even in times of crisis and uncertainty. Unfortunately, the leader and followers can easily become reluctant to share the truth out of a fear of displeasing the beloved leader. Likewise, organizational momentum does not typically survive the tenure of the compelling leader. In the absence of the well-liked leader, followers often enter an apathetic phase, demotivated and often excessively anxious about the disposition and proclivities of the incoming leader.

Contingency/Situational leadership, posited by Hersey and Blanchard is an approach to leadership wherein the leader engages in behaviors that complement the circumstances in which he finds himself as a leader. The leader’s actions are a function of the current condition and hierarchical needs of the organization. With a steadfast focus, the contingency/situational leader addresses the immediate needs of the organization. Unfortunately, the momentum of the organization and the command of the leader may not survive beyond the temporary situation that seemingly gives the leader superhuman status. Some may even view the contingency/situational leader as a chameleon whose leadership style is unpredictable, variable, and as a consequence, breeds organizational instability.

Distributive leadership, advanced by Richard Elmore, promotes the act of dispersing decision-making and leadership authority to competent individuals and groups within the organization. The distributive leader recognizes the heft of the lifting to be done and strategically enlists followers to become leaders of progress through authentic participation in planning and implementing change. Distributive leadership allows the leader to give the work back to the people who are closest to the work and most impacted by decisions related to the work. Although distributive leadership exposes followers to professional growth opportunities, the rate of organizational improvement can slow dramatically due to the consensus-building nature of shared decision-making.

Human Resources leadership, conceived by Bolman and Deal, is an approach to leadership wherein the leader views the follower-ship as an extended family comprised of individuals whose strengths are a resource to the well-being and function of the organization. The leader actively and purposely promotes a culture of empowerment among the follower-ship. Innovation and loyalty are often inspired through the followers’ sense of belonging. When faced with fiscal or best-fit challenges, the leader is likely to go to great length in order to retain each member of the workforce. Whether by securing a source to fund positions in jeopardy of being lost or by identifying a better fit for an individual’s professional assets, the Human Resources leader believes that each member of the team has a unique contribution worth salvaging. To the detriment of the organization, the Human Resources leader’s attention to relationships may result in the interests of the organization being sidelined in exchange for meeting the needs of individuals.

Learning Organizational Theory, coined by Peter Senge, is an approach to leadership that views the organization as a living entity that must keep learning in order to survive and thrive. The leader’s focus on continuous learning for the leadership and follower-ship can promote a culture of responsiveness to the external environment, driving the evolution of the organization and its ability to recreate itself toward an extraordinary end. The Learning Organizational Theory leader views the future as something than can be created through ingenuity and strategic action. The future does not happen to an organization led by a Learning Organization Theory leader. The organization creates its own future. And since the future can be created, the Learning Organizational Theory leader pays a great deal of attention to the function and health of the organization relative to its position in the larger ecosystem. Unfortunately, the leader’s excessive focus on a survival of the fittest approach to leadership can result in excessive shifts in organizational philosophy and practice, inadvertently promoting a sense of chaos and burnout.

Political leadership, postulated by Bolman and Deal, is an approach to leadership wherein the leader’s decisions are significantly influenced by politics, alliances, and/or interest groups. The organization is viewed as an arena, contest, or jungle characterized by relentless competition for power and scarce resources. Those who are well connected are more likely to have access to the decision-making table. Individuals and groups lacking political leverage will invariably find themselves and their agenda marginalized and consequently, largely overlooked.  Although a strategic political leader can make use of conflict and advocacy as a strategy to expedite change and encourage collaboration, meaningful and necessary progress can be thwarted or stalled by the myopic interests of a small number of politically connected individuals or groups.

Transactional leadership, coined by McGregor Burns, is a leadership style through which the leader approaches followers with an eye for trading one action for another. The leader’s approach to engendering organizational momentum is characterized by actively seeking tradeoffs to engage and motivate the follower-ship. A skilled and resourced transactional leader may be able to sustain a steady flow of transactions to motivate the troops. The organization may benefit from this approach to leadership in seasons of surplus; however, progress may slow or falter in the absence of exchanges between the leader and followers.

Transformational leadership posited by McGregor Burns, is an approach to leadership wherein the leader’s style is characterized by evoking a sense of higher purpose, linking organizational outcomes to the common good. The leader serves as symbol of maturity and morality for the organizational community. The follower-ship rallies behind the transformational leader and is driven to go the extra mile for the organization by an intrinsic desire to contribute. Transformational leadership engenders an organizational culture that, results in the strength of the organization being tightly associated with the personal strength and personal stability of the leader. If the leader falters, so does the organization.

In servant leadership, theorized by Robert Greenleaf, the leader is viewed as the steward of the resources necessary to assist followers in their effort to meet performance expectations. The leader’s attention to the needs of the follower-ship stimulates and spawns productivity and high morale. The organization can easily become unstable in a crisis, as the follower-ship is susceptible to becoming reliant on the leader to coddle and cater to them, which may not be situationally possible or feasible.

Here is the epiphany…If your approach to leading is one-dimensional, so is your organization’s potential.

Switch gears.
Donyall D. Dickey

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