Sunday, 10 May 2009

Critical Perspectives on Leadership: A Little Night Reading

I've just spent extremely stimulating three days facilitating a group of HR practitioners from the Swedish-based multinational, Getinge, in Lund. They came from Sweden, Poland, the UK, the USA, Germany and France to learn about the problems of leadership and the difficulties of establishing common values in a complex organization. In a week's time, I'm tasked with a related set of problems, this time examining the relevance of leadership theory to public sector policy makers in Scotland. With these projects in mind and having written a text which deals with the topic a few years ago, I recently picked up a fascinating little book by Brad Jackson and Ken Parry, entitled ' A Very Short, Fairly Interesting and Reasonably Cheap Book about Studying Leadership', published by Sage ( a companion to an earlier text of the same ilk by Chris Grey on organizational studies). Written as an introduction for students, the authors hope that academics like me who skirt around the subject will learn something from it. I certainly did, and I would thoroughly recommend it to any of my students, the HR group at Getinge and the public policy group I'm about to meet.

The book is a gem and to boot is well written and short, although it is much more than the kind of an annotated bibliography that you might find in similar sized textbooks on the subject. Along with Keith Grint's 2005 book on the limits and possibilities of leadership, the authors provide an up-to-date critical review of much of the extant leadership literature and way of integrating different strands of leadership thinking in a very helpful and practical way.

After an introduction on why leadership matters, a not uncontested debate given the evidence on the lack of positive impact of leaders on organizational performance, the authors make the now conventional distinction between research on leader-centred persectives and research on follower-centred perspectives. They outline and discuss the research findings on transformational leadership, charismatic leadership, gender and leadership, and the personality of effective leaders. These are followed by a critical evaluation of these approaches, especially narcissistic leadership and the dark side of charisma - both very topical. The balanced treatment of these leader-centred approaches are followed by an excellent summary and evaluation of the perhaps unnacceptably labelled 'follower centred' theories, made popular by Barbara Kellermans new book on why followers matter. These include theories on how leaders are socially constructed by followers, the romance of leadership which fulfils important needs for many people, psycholanalytical theories that emphasise how we learn to be leaders and followers from early childhood, and social identity theory, which proposes that leaders will be acceptable to the extent they fulfil prototypical expectations of leadership of a particular group. Taken together these theories have great power in explaining why senior public sector leaders are often seen as ineffective, weak, politically driven, etc, in large part because they aren't able to meet the expectations of employees for the kind of leadership that is portrayed in the business press as the private sector ideal.

The next chapter s especially relevant for firms engaged in devising leadership frameworks in international organizations since it deals with cross-cultural leadership. Especially relevant here is the brief but fair evaluation of the GLOBE studies, probably the most extensive research to-date into cross-cultural leadership research. This is followed by a chapter on critical leadership, including newer theories on co-leadership, distributed leadership and team leadership, which have become very popular in the new public sector environment, and among organizations seeking to flatten out hierarchy.

In producing a chapter on research into leadership with a higher purpose, the authors have provided some insights into the now popular calls for leadership 2.0 (see earlier posts), post-transformational/ post charismatic leadership, leadership as art and drama, and leadership as sense-making and the exercise of wisdom. The Half Moon Bay discussions led by Hamel and Birkinshaw reflect many of these ideas and are likely to provide much of the agenda for the reform of leadership/ new directions of leadership debates.

Finally, not content with discussing research only, the authors have an excellent chapter on leadership development, and the strengths and weaknesses of various methods of leader development and leader/ follower development. They also provide some links to resources to help practitioners do further work in this field.

All in all, this is likely to be one of the most profitable three-to-four hour periods that leadership development specialists could spend in understanding the limitations of leaders and the importance of linking leadership to followership. Hopefully it will encourage them to read some of the other authors mentioned in this blog and in the extensive bibliography they provide.


cv said...

Graeme --

Thanks so much for tipping us/me off to this couldn't have come at a better time for me. I'm teaching EMBA students in June about authenticity, employee branding, personal branding, leadership stereotypes, and person-organization fit (great combo, right?)

In preparing the reading assignment, I had to go back into the corners of my mind to untangle the actual data that lead me, many years ago, to be super-skeptical about how leadership is generally understood. Then, I got this book, and it was all neatly laid out for me, with room for my own opinions and new data.

Seriously, it's like I could do one of those testimonial infomercials on late-night TV for this book!
Anyway, I also appreciate knowing that you and the folks at the Centre are incorporating a critical and still optimistic view on leading and leadership into your consulting & research.

Graeme's HR Blog said...

I'll send you some material that Keith Grint and I have written for a seminar we're doing next week for policymakers in the Scottish government - its full of critical stuff. Keith's work is really worth reading