I’ll be damned if I understand how we make some of our most important decisions around here.
–CEO of a Fortune 500 company
“The (Mustang) model (of 1964) was totally completed by the time Lee (Iacocca) saw it,”; says (Gene) Bordinat, now retired. “We conceived the car, and he pimped it after it was born.”
–Time, April 1, 1985
Leadership is one of the most observed and least understood phenomena on earth.
–James MacGregor Burns
LET’S START WITH the premise that no one has a good all-purpose definition of leadership. For most of us, the word conjures up an image of one leader with followers. However, the quotes above suggest that understanding—and assigning credit for—leadership can be confusing and highly emotional. James MacGregor Burns’s recent book, Leadership, cites one study with 130 definitions of the term.1 Another book notes over 5,000 research studies and monographs on the subject. The editor concludes that there is no common set of factors, traits, or processes that identifies the qualities of effective leadership.2 Most of these books equate leadership with the leader who is a hero-person. That is one extreme. The other extreme is found in studies that view leadership as a set of personal attributes such as energy, charisma, or style. In between are the contingency theorists who argue that leadership depends upon anything from task conditions to subordinate expectations.
In a sense, all of these approaches are correct, but none is sufficient. All deal more with the single leader and multi-follower concept than with organizational leadership in a pluralistic sense.3 None deals very well with the complexities that arise from the fact that managers are both leaders and followers, because of the very nature of organizational hierarchies. All bosses, including CEOs, are also subordinate to other people or pressures.
Nor do any of these approaches deal effectively with another fact of organizational life—that informal social networks exert an immense influence which sometimes overrides the formal hierarchy. A boss in one context may be a subordinate, relative, friend, or colleague in other company settings. A person’s formal job status may be clear in the hierarchy, but that is only one part of an organization’s network of relationships. Less formal network ties often dominate a person’s or group’s role behavior.
All of this reminds us of what we often forget.