Overhauling how we teach leadership

February 12, 2013

The public long has lamented the state of “leadership” in America, referring often to a deficit in political or business leadership. Scandals like the ones with Bernie Madoff and David Petraeus year after year confirm our sense that we should find better leaders. The question is, how best to do so?

When we conflate ethical leadership with ethical leaders, we spend too much time bemoaning the fact that our leaders aren’t all really good people. Instead, we need to spend more time looking at whether we have good norms for choosing our leaders and holding them accountable, and good processes from which leadership emerges and functions ethically.

It’s time for those of us who teach and write about leadership explicitly to acknowledge the essential difference between studying leaders and studying leadership.

There is nothing wrong with a study of leadership that includes the study of leaders, both the very good as well as the very bad. It’s an approach used in many courses and much scholarship about leadership. We ask and try to answer questions about the best president, the worst despot and so on.

Yet though the allure of “greatness” never fully will disappear — it makes for good reading, after all — we need to move further away from this focus on “great” men and women. Fortunately, over the past few decades, leadership scholars gradually have begun asking additional questions: Who were the leader’s followers? Are they indeed followers, or would we better understand them as participants? Can leadership emerge from a process of discussion? Can an idea or purpose, rather than an individual, become a group’s leader?

The future of how we study and understand leadership was the focus of a recent symposium at the University of Richmond’s Jepson School of Leadership Studies, where I serve as dean. There, it became evident that the latest research indeed treats leadership as a phenomenon much more complex than the person who holds authority.

Those of us in leadership studies need to fully embrace this newer way of thinking. We need to move beyond the narrow focus on the person at the expense of culture and ethics. We need to recognize and help our students appreciate that leaders operate within a set of culturally determined norms, within a particular temporal and spatial context. A president inherits a specific set of economic conditions. A prime minister operates with a minority government. A new CEO enters into a culture largely shaped before she arrives.

The problem with using leaders as a starting point for studying leadership is that it draws attention away from the study of institutions, norms and rules within which leadership functions. We might have some sense that transparency matters in leadership or that reciprocity is important, but our attention more often turns to the leader’s biographical or psychological details.

Take Abraham Lincoln. A traditional leadership study would examine his persuasion skills, his vision, his ability to catalyze change. But history provides us an even richer data set. We should spend more time trying to understand those who worked for, with and against him — as well as those who didn’t engage his rhetoric at all — in an effort to gain a clearer sense of the leadership challenges Lincoln faced and how he dealt with them. When we start to think in broader terms than personality, we come to more robust conclusions about leadership, what works and what doesn’t

Controlled experiments provide a second rich set of possibilities. By varying the conditions under which leaders are chosen or operate, scholars have derived more insight into the efficacy of ethical leadership. For example, recent experimental work compared the influence of leaders when the leader is chosen randomly versus elected democratically. A follow-up experiment varied the degree of transparency of a leader’s actions and found much more cooperation when the actions were transparent rather than opaque.

Leadership is complex and requires many lenses to understand it. Psychology is helpful, yes, but so are history and philosophy, science and economics. It’s time to recognize that leadership is more capacious than the study of leaders and followers. We must cut this Gordian knot.

Sandra J. Peart is the dean of the University of Richmond’s Jepson School of Leadership Studies.

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