What We Really Need Now From Theories of Leadership

Relaxed Businessman

I still hear discussions of Steve Jobs and his amazing contribution to the success of Apple. Although inspiring, it confirms my suspicions that we haven’t yet captured all we need to know about effective leadership. Strong leaders such as Jobs are often an enigma — and unraveling the source of their strength is critical as we move forward. His skills possessed some of the nuances and often non-quantifiable elements of leadership that we strive to capture.

However, these legendary tales don’t seem to help us develop emerging leaders.

Current theory (and accompanying practices) may not be enough for those interested in organizational success, to make confident predictions about required leader skills. This lack of confidence directly impacts the “state of the opinion” surrounding the selection and development of leaders.

This gap essentially affects all of us going forward.

A Debate for the Decades
Leadership is one of the most well researched workplace topics  and with good reason. Relevant theories of leadership have the potential to have limitless impact upon organizations and their employees. There is a great body of existing theory and research, beginning with the “great man” and trait theories.

However, are leadership theories capturing what organizations require to move forward effectively? The answer may be “no”.

Here is what we might need to examine, to move forward effectively:

  • A dynamic view of leadership. There has been a long-standing emphasis on the specific, individual attributes of leaders. (The list is endless.) But that may be distracting us from a larger, more dynamic view of leadership effectiveness. We may need to step back to take a much broader view that examines a leader’s overall ability to flex in response to the varying situations and stresses they may encounter. Organizational needs change rapidly which requires a leader to flex or change their approach as well. For example, we might  refocus on the notion of a leader’s potential to develop the right “script” for a specific leadership challenge.
  • Leader-culture match. Identifying an merging leader through succession planning or hiring an industry star is one thing. Being sure the leader can navigate the organization and gain acceptance is another. Does the prospective leader have the capacity to absorb the prevailing organizational mindset and represent that group? (Think of the debacle at Time, Inc.)  Culture of the organization is no longer on the fringes. It is a critical element to consider. If a potential leader cannot represent that culture and embody its vision — it is unwise to move forward, as context does matter.
  • Training  & development opportunities. By and large, if a theory doesn’t contribute to leadership development efforts, it seems relegated to a “read only or great to know” status. Descriptive theories are necessary, but more of a focus on usable training points is needed. Moreover, these experiences should not exclusively take place in a classroom setting. For example, does exposure to extremely challenging assignments and situations (as Jobs was) enhance a potential leader’s skill set moving forward? I suspect the answer is “yes”.
  • An integrative approach. Obviously, leaders do not lead within a vacuum. An approach that considers not only the leader, but followers, customers and external conditions is needed. As discussed in the American Psychologist (Avolio, 2007), integrating these elements is the future of leadership theory.

As organizations strive to innovate and remain competitive, effective theories of leadership will remain a focus. Hopefully, theories will continue to evolve and capture the synergy of elements contributing to leader success.

Dr. Marla Gottschalk is a Workplace Psychologist. You can find her on Twitter and Linkedin.