The Hidden Side of Organizational Leadership

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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.


1. J.M. Burns, Leadership (New York: Harper & Row, 1978), p.2.

2. B.M. Bass, Stogdill’s Handbook of Leadership: A Survey of Theory and Research, rev. ed. (New York: The Free Press, 1981).

3. There are a few valiant efforts to break out of those constraints. See E.H. Schein, Organizational Culture and Leadership: A Dynamic View (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1985);

M.W. McCall, Jr., and M.M. Lombardo, Leadership: Where Else Can We Go? (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1978).

4. Even the newer studies tend to be guilty of this assumption that leadership behavior goes most naturally with one person, usually in a formal position. Most studies pursue the single leader and multi-follower concept, though occasionally shifting from one perspective to another. In addition to Burns’s book noted above, see M. Maccoby, The Leader: A New Face for American Management (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1981);

Schein (1985);

W. Bennis and B. Nanus, Leaders: The Strategies of Taking Charge (New York: Harper & Row, 1985).

5. A.P. Hare, Social Interaction as Drama (Beverly Hills: Sage Publications, 1985).

6. The initial field work was done by the authors along with Doctors L. Wallace and J. Jaferian.

7. For a somewhat similar approach, see J.B. Quinn, Strategies for Change: Logical Incrementalism (Homewood, IL: Richard D. Irwin, 1980);

D. Gladstein and J.B. Quinn, “A Commentary on Janis’ Sources of Error in Strategic Decision Making,” in Strategic Decision Making, ed. H. Hennings (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1985).

8. J.A. Pearce II and F.R. David, “A Social Network Approach to Organizational Design Performance,” Academy of Management Review 8 (1983): 436–444.

9. A. Zaleznik, “Managers and Leaders: Are They Different?” Harvard Business Review, May–June 1977, pp. 67–78;

For more of the same, see N.M. Tichy and D.O. Ulrich, “The Leadership Challenge—A Call for the Transformational Leader,” Sloan Management Review, Fall 1984, pp. 59–68.

10. A. Zaleznik, “The Leadership Gap,” Washington Quarterly, Winter 1983, pp. 32–39.

11. G. Holton, Thematic Origins of Scientific Thought: Kepler to Einstein (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1973), pp. 144–149.

12. G. Zukav, The Dancing Wu Li Masters: An Overview of the New Physics (New York: Bantam Books, 1979).

13. Ibid., p. 33.

14. Renn Zaphiropoulos (Boston: Harvard Business School Case No. 480-044).

15. L.B. Barnes, “Managing the Paradox of Organizational Trust,” Harvard Business Review, March–April 1981, pp. 107–116.

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