Defining leadership

My interest in the study of leadership comes from my fascination with the way human beings make decisions and influence the decision-making of others. As with so many things in my life, leadership was something that I thought I understood completely, until I began work on my PhD in Organizational Leadership Psychology. My professional career has included a mixture of for- and non-profit work and corporate and external consulting positions. Each of these various roles exposed me to distinctive styles of leadership and acted as models of what to do and, perhaps more importantly, what not to do when I was (someday) in charge.

My initial view of leadership had more to do with the leader than the follower. In many ways, my thinking started out similarly to that of early leadership scholars, like Thomas Carlyle. Working in the mid-19th century, these thinkers centered their theories around the leader and treated followers and external factors as afterthoughts.

With experience, my perspective evolved. At the time I started pursuing this degree in May 2018, my definition of leadership was inspiring others to act in a way that achieved a fixed or evolving objective. Arguably, this line of thinking is closest to transformational leadership, where leaders inspire a shared vision and get followers to engage rather than just participate.

However, my point of view was still incomplete. Like the English Literature major who wrote to Isaac Asimov in 1989, I had a binary perspective on leadership theory. As one of the professors from my program commented recently, referencing Asimov’s famous response, having an unrelentingly singular view of any topic is artificially limiting. Asimov made the point that the development of new theories that challenge or replace previous ones does not negate the value the previous models contributed to human knowledge. To the contrary, they present an opportunity for the expansion of our understanding. Asimov used the example of the debate over the shape of the Earth to illustrate his point. With the tools and instrumentation available at the time, each generation of investigators performed the best analysis they knew how, contributing to the evolution of the science. What I was most struck by in Asimov’s illustration was the tiny difference in the curvature of the Earth, about 0.000126 over a one-mile distance. In almost any other circumstance, such an infinitesimal number would be immaterial. However, due to the scale of the Earth, the calculation of curvature is sensitive to initial conditions. Similar to what Lorenz described as the ‘Butterfly Effect’ in chaos theory, even the slightest variation in the starting point of the calculations can produce a substantially different outcome than what is expected.

Now, having an evidence-informed perspective, I find myself conceptualizing leadership as Henry Mintzberg did when he wrote that it is “neither a science nor a profession; it is a practice, learned primarily through experience, and rooted in context” (Managing, 2011, p. 9). I more clearly distinguish between leadership, management, and administration than I used to. Previously, the three words were interchangeable from my perspective. Moreover, I am also less concerned with espousing a single theory. In the overview to his 2016 book on healthcare management, Mintzberg quoted another famous scholar, Donald Hebb, who said that what made a theory good was its ability to remain viable long enough to enable a new, better theory to be developed. Writing nearly two decades before Asimov penned his famous reply to the humanities major, Hebb said essentially the same thing. Theories reflect our knowledge, skill, and power of analysis at any one moment, existing to support us in getting to the next plane of understanding when our technology has advanced sufficiently to take us there.

Increasingly, I find myself coming back to the Observation Effect described in physics which explains that the act of observing an object changes it, meaning that it is impossible to truly observe anything exactly as it is. Leadership is ever evolving, because leaders, followers, and the environment are all in a perpetual state of flux. As a result, I do not believe that there will ever be a single Unified Theory of Leadership, but rather that we will come to understand leadership as both an object and an action.

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