Exploring the evolution of leadership perspectives from a great man who molds the future to any individual who acts on faith uncovered the challenges of understanding the phenomena and process of effective leadership. Studying leadership perspectives provides some understanding of leadership but does not translate into the ability to lead.
After reviewing leadership definitions from various perspectives, Jon Pierce and John Engstrom (2008) found “as many definitions given to leadership as there have been authors.” They conclude that a single definition of leadership is not possible; then they offer their own:
Leadership is a sociological phenomenon (a process) involving the intentional exercise of influence by one person over one or more individuals, in an effort to guide activities toward the attainment of some mutual goal, a goal that requires interdependent action among members of the group. (p. 10)
To the layperson, such an approach may raise an eyebrow due to its meticulous attempt to define what the author says is indefinable. The non-scholar or practitioner may feel more comfortable with expressions that fit on a bumper sticker, like:
- A leader is someone who is in charge
- A leader is someone who takes action
- A leader is someone who has followers
- Leadership means influencing others to achieve goals
However, such simplicity does not seem to flourish in academic discussions of leadership—and may not be enough for understanding a complicated process. Even the extensive definition offered by Pierce and Newstrom (2008) presents limitations when faced with reality because it emphasizes that leadership is an intentional process. Contrarily, social psychology demonstrates that influence is a mutual process that can be simultaneously unintentional and intentional (Aronson, 2008).
After reviewing numerous definitions, Gary Yukl (2010) concurred with Pierce and Engstrom (2008), concluding that the “definition of leadership is arbitrary and subjective” (p. 8). A single definition is virtually impossible. This does not mean that any competing definition is right or wrong. Each definition provides different perspectives on a “complex, multifaceted phenomenon” (p. 8). After concluding that no single definition of leadership exists, Yukl (2010) offered his own (p. 8):
Leadership is the process of influencing others to understand and agree about what needs to be done and how to do it, and the process of facilitating individual and collective efforts to accomplish shared goals.
The common elements among most definitions are influence, people, and goals, meaning that leadership is the influence over other people to accomplish goals. Outside of these standard components, scholars have such fundamental disagreements over the definition of leadership that some question if it is a valid subject for research (Yukl, 2010; Pierce, Leadership (MGTS 4431), 2007).
No definition means limited valid measurements, which restricts viable research. Further complicating the problems with a lack of definition is that interpreters tend to argue about the meaning of the elements they disagree with. For example, “influence” is a common element of most leadership definitions. However, different scholars have different understandings of influence: from an individual to others, from others to an individual, or a shared process. Is influence seen from an individual role, a shared process, a natural part of a social system, or a pattern of relationships?
The examples from Yukl (2010) and Pierce and Newstrom (2008) demonstrate scholars’ challenges in understanding and defining leadership. Although the scientific study of leadership has generated thousands of studies and offered many divergent definitions, knowledge of any or all the studies does not translate into effective leadership.
Academicians who devote their careers to studying and teaching leadership may have neither experience nor the ability to apply their knowledge in a practical setting. Likewise, a person who lacks an academic foundation in leadership studies can be an effective leader, even when implementing practices that counter research. This does not mean that leadership studies are futile. Gaining knowledge of leadership studies can help a leader adjust practices to enhance leadership effectiveness. However, extensive knowledge of leadership studies alone translates into neither wisdom nor ability.
Emphasizing this point, David Day, Michelle Harrison, and Stanley Halpin (2009) propose that effective leadership results from a developmental process that can take a lifetime of experience. Knowledge of leadership theory and proven practices can accelerate leadership development by guiding the relevant concepts and methods for different situations (p. 7).
The disconnect between academic knowledge and practical practice became clear to me during three separate discussions with leadership scholars about developing a curriculum for leadership studies. Having over two decades of applied management experience, I expressed that I thought that understanding psychology and organizational behavior is fundamental to effective leadership and should be part of leadership studies. Market-based adult education programs that focus on the practical application of knowledge require study in applied psychology and group dynamics for management and leadership programs. However, from my discussions with career academicians who specialize in leadership studies, I found that leadership and psychology tend to be separate silos of study.
Toward methodological myopia
The challenges of integrating disciplines for practical applications becomes more evident when considering a syllabus for a leadership course prepared by John Pierce (2007), the author of a popular college textbook on leadership. Building his case from assertions offered by other leadership scholars, Pierce argues that pursuing relevance in leadership studies is “wrong” (pp. L-5). To Pierce, leadership studies should neither provide practical answers to questions that affect people nor help students learn how to lead or run an organization. Instead, the academic study of leadership should shape the scholar’s perspective of leadership, so the scholar has a framework for learning how to lead when they obtain a job.
Pierce’s argument seems to assert that the purpose of leadership education in college is to tell students what they should think about leadership, not to teach them how to lead. Arguing that leadership studies should have practical application exposes a divide between academics and reality that helps illuminate why academic researchers have such difficulty defining leadership. Pierce’s argument also helps explain why some question the value of leadership as a topic for academic research (Yukl, 2010; Pierce & Newstrom, 2008).
The divide between research and reality is not universal in academic literature. Hughes, Ginnet, and Curphy (2005) allude to the importance of psychology for the leadership process when they emphasize that “leadership involves both the rational and emotional sides of human experience” (8). With knowledge of human psychology and group dynamics, leaders can better determine the correct mix of rational or emotional appeals to use for a situation (Tobey & Manning, 2009) and measure the consequences of each. Further, understanding social psychology can help leaders understand how the social environment influences others to do things they might not do alone and use that knowledge to manipulate outcomes. Regarding the value of organizational behavior knowledge to leadership, Schermerhorn, Hunt, & Osborn (2007) proposed that knowledge of organizational behavior is one of the fundamental building blocks of effective leadership [See Image 1: Building Blocks of Leadership].
Journey to practicality
In their proposal that “leadership development is a journey encompassing the entire adult lifespan,” Day et al. (2009) argued that analyzing elements of leadership through isolated theoretical perspectives limits comprehension of complex phenomena. Understanding leadership requires having a “sound foundation in human development,” which integrates multiple disciplines that are related to leadership, “especially cognitive, social, developmental, and organizational psychology” (p. 4).
Contrary to Pierce’s insistence that leadership studies should be irrelevant, considering leadership as a developmental process suggests that leadership studies have immediate and practical benefits. To Day et al. (2009), an integrative approach to leadership studies offers a practical means to “accelerate leader development” (p. 5). This means that organizations can enhance flexibility and adaptability in a demanding turbulent environment.