What is leadership for? This is not a new question, or an answered one. Academics have so many ways of framing responses to this question that managers may justly ask how they are supposed to know which one to study in order to become a good leader. So perhaps we need to think again.
If leadership is made real through actions, or through sets of actions, then it follows that certain actions may be defined as leadership while others may not. There are conventions about which we can all agree. Leadership is therefore not entirely subjective and in the eye of the beholder, nor is it random. If it were either, we’d have no basis on which to agree what a leader is.
But is it possible to explain leadership using theory? And if it is, how should this be done? Is it who the leader is that counts? Or is it the type action or set of actions that matter? Or is it just a matter of context (the all-powerful “it depends”)? Questions such as these are the bread and butter of leadership study in business schools (endless rounds of intellectual tag are played out in journals and at conferences). The field of leadership as a subject domain is a morass of minute and bewilderingly trivial differences between social science theories. It does make for a landscape every bit as bewildering and unyielding as the Lilliputian divide, in Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels, between big-enders and little-enders on how to open a boiled egg.
How far does all this get us toward answering what leadership is for?
Not far enough. Leadership theory and practice have each become rather centred on addressing two questions:
1. “Who is in charge?” (or, “who should be in charge?”) and
2. “What is the best way for those in charge to arrange things?”
These both feel pragmatic and fit nicely with the idea that good leadership = good leader, which is the notion that if you get the who and the what right and the rest will follow. Yet this is only one aspect of a much more complex reality. These questions often end up being about fitting in and maintaining the status quo, whereas leadership ought to stand out, rock the boat, and explore the new. I argue that leadership is about two other questions as well.
3. “What could be?”
This is about change, vision and possibility, and now that, for example, the climate crisis has arrived as a present-tense issue it could be about a paradigmatic change to the business model of the global economy. This is, perhaps, where leadership theory is now – at the cutting edge and making some progress – although with a few exceptions it is still stuck in outdated ideas of what a leader is. There is, I also believe, another task for the business school, and in fact the whole university, and another question for leadership study to form. Here is my attempt:
4. “What are the consequences of our actions?”
Fitting our environment to suit human needs, our tried and tested way of defining progress, can have all sorts of unintended consequences. It may now be leading to the destruction of the environment itself. The business school can help with awareness not so much in terms of WHAT to do but HOW to think. Awareness is key here because it’s the one thing most managers lack as they consider their next actions.
Training leaders to impose narrow solutions on present problem without also educating them to use their imaginations to foresee and deal with the future effects does no-one a service.
Written by Dr Chris Dalton