Much Ado about leadership

by pegleghippie

(I wrote this for MyLeftWing shortly before enigma engine started. I think it fits the mood of what I’ve written here better than the more overtly political nature of MLW, so I’m reposting it here)

As the presidential campaigns continue, i find myself in more and more discussions about leadership. So I thought I’d share what I know about the subject. 

Lucky for you, dear reader, Leadership is my minor, so I actually know quite a bit about it. This is just going to be an overview of things, and I’m not going to bother with sources. If you are interested in where this information comes from, I’ll be happy to provide everything necessary.

You study leadership? WTF?

Most people who aren’t familiar with my university are surprised that leadership is actually studied. It just feels like leadership is automatic, something that you’re either good at or you aren’t. Plenty of people of all walks of life are required to lead in some capacity or other, and they seem to do just fine without reading any books on the subject, so why study it?

Alternatively, those with a sociological or psychological background feel that leadership professors are encroaching on their turf. Leadership happens in entirely societal contexts, argues the sociologist, and the psychologist (rightly) points out that whatever it is that leaders think about, it isn’t separate and distinct from what every person thinks about, and thinking is pretty much a psychologist’s bag.

To the first question: why study leadership at all? The most basic answer is the same reason we study anything-so we can understand it and use it better. Just because we know how to run doesn’t mean that we ignore physiology, or that athletes forego practicing. To assume that there’s nothing to study, that the best leaders happen automatically, is fatalistic. And academics are notorious anti-fatalists.

Secondly, both the psychologists and the sociologists have a point: leadership draws heavily from other disciplines. But the fact that both of these subjects can make the claim that leadership is derivative implies that it goes beyond either one. Much the same way political science overlaps with sociology, economics, and even hard sciences, so too does leadership overlap with other areas of study.

As to what leadership has that is unique to itself, there’s the specific relationship between leader and follower, the fallout of this relationship, and the theories that describe this phenomenon. It’s to these theories that i turn to next.

Trait theory

Ok so technically I should be starting with the “Great man” theory, but, well, it’s nothing more than it’s name implies. Some men are just so great that they’re destined to lead. Awesome. The problem with Great man theory, like the idea that leadership is unlearn-able, is fatalistic, and not really open to inquiry. So to open it to inquiry, sociologists tried to determine what traits defined the great man. Hence, trait theory was born.

In the 1930’s, a guy named Stogdal came up with an extremely long list of traits, then looked for examples of successful leaders who didn’t have those traits. his purpose was to figure out which traits were absolutely essential. What ended up happening was he discounted every trait on his list, and declared trait theory to be dead.

By the 1970’s, however, Stogdal decided to give it a second go, this time focusing on the most probable traits, rather than universal ones (statistics didn’t exist in the 30’s). What he found is rather basic, but it’s important to the big picture that I go over the results of both his work and other trait theorists.

The important development of traits came down to certain needs. Most importantly, the need for power. Now, a leader’s power need may be a personal one, in which he/she becomes a greedy and manipulative leader, or it may be social, in which case the leader takes the long view, and looks out for others.

The next need is the need for affiliation. The higher the need, the harder someone will work to be liked. Obviously, this becomes a bad thing the moment someone values being liked more than being respected. Nevertheless, a certain degree of achievement need is correlated with good leaders.

Lastly, there’s the need for achievement. This is one’s desire to excel, the drive to succeed, the willingness to assume responsibility. Too much of this need, obviously, means caring about one’s own position more than the ‘big picture.’ A moderate need for achievement is considered the ideal.

Situational Leadership

The trait theorists also focused on skills, specifically a leader’s skills regarding the task at hand, and the relationship with the followers. The Ohio studies said that the more you had of one, the less you had of another, while the Michigan studies claimed that the better relationships you had, the better your followers will accomplish tasks. Eventually, the notion occurred to someone that the situation may play a role in how task and relations affected each other.

Here’s the basic idea.To get the most out of one’s followers, one must consider their level of comfortableness and confidence. At first the leader should direct the follower, like a dictator, giving no leeway and being no one’s friend.

As the leader and follower get closer, however, the relationship becomes more similar to a coach. here the leader can be friendly and close to the follower, but still must ‘hold hands’ with them to guarantee effectiveness.

Once the follower gets good at their job, the leader can back off, even trusting the follower to make decisions independently. The leader can do this because they remain active in the follower’s life, they keep the relationship strong.

Finally, the need to stay close falls off-this is interpreted by some as the point where a follower gets promoted and moves on, or becomes equal with their boss, and the old relationship is no longer appropriate. The follower is completely independent from direct authority and is capable of affecting the business of the organization in a positive way.

You may see some problems with this. Most apparently, this approach doesn’t cover all the ways a situation can change leadership, so the name seems inappropriate. This is just an overview, however, and the behavior diagram is merely the most recognizable aspect of it.

Secondly, it gives a one-on-one approach for leaders approaching followers, but what about the sum total of relationships that a leader must deal with? Glad you (hypothetically) asked.


No, it’s not a designer drug. LMX stands for Leader-member exchange theory, and it’s just about the most practical theory out there.

LMX rests on the idea that favorable relationships are more likely when leaders pursue followers who are competent and share values with the leader. In other words, out of all the followers that a leader has, the ones who who are good at what they do and see the world similarly to the leader are the ones with whom the leader should try to get close to. Everyone else can remain a grunt.

This may seem cruel, but consider: how can a leader be expected to build someone up if they aren’t good at accomplishing organizational goals? or if they disagree with those goals? of if they simply don’t care, and don’t want to be built up? LMX, then, allows leaders to save some hope at least, by doing good where they can.

Studies on LMX have found that for those followers who are ‘lifted up,’ job satisfaction and supervisor satisfaction are closely linked. additionally, the LMX strategy breeds loyalty, increased contribution, and professional respect.

Hopefully, at this point I have you thinking of managers you’ve had at various jobs. Researchers noticed this too, and began asking the question, “what’s the difference between managing and leading anyway?” For a decade or so (the 1980’s), the answer was nothing. The manager was the leader, and corporations were the pinnacle of organizational possibilities. However, even if it wasn’t stifling, it was just too boring to last.

Transforming Leadership

Remember the idea that leadership was about task and relations? Well it turns out that really is all there is to management. But leaders did something additional; leaders caused change. So the leadership building blocks are now task, relation, and change. George Macgregor Burns, a presidential biographer, came up with a method to best bring about change.

Burns describes transforming leadership as a process in which leaders and followers call each other to a higher moral understanding. By moral, he means universal human values, such as human dignity, life, justice, and liberty. So transforming leaders, such as Gandhi begin a process wherein everyone involved helps everyone else to realize these values more fully.

Like any other technique, there are tools of transforming leadership. Most importantly, charisma allows leaders to inspire and connect to followers, to inspire them to be part of something bigger. Charisma isn’t enough, however. The leader must be competent, especially with delegation of tasks. As this is the art of empowering, not just inspiring, the transformational leader should actively have followers involved and making important organizational decisions.

Since this involves a lot of trust on the leader’s part, the moral component is important, since there’s more opportunities for corruption to come into play. This brings back the need for charisma, as well as the ability to create the correct image. In other words, people have to believe that the leader really is a role model, that the leader really does hold those common values in very high regard. Some will argue that only a moral leader can be a transforming leader; I think people are better liars than that.

Everything I left out

There’s some subjects i didn’t cover. The selflessness of servant leadership, the rational transactional leadership, and transformational leadership, which I promise you is very different from transforming leadership. There’s also sub-categories like authentic leadership and values/ethics leadership.

Beyond that there’s a whole debate over what is a ‘good’ leader, and what is a leader at all. Not to mention my serious objections to transforming leadership. But this has gone on long enough, and it’s a good beginning for a discussion on an oft-misunderstood topic.


2 Responses

  1. Servant Leadership. Love the concept and how Jesus was our ultimate model to follow.

    You may also enjoy the work of Robert Greenleaf on this topic, if you’re not already familiar with his writings. The historical, conceptual, and implementation of servant leadership has been best encapsulated in the media package entitled Servant Leadership. You may view the program at Trainer’s Toolchest’s website at and plug in keywords “servant leadership”. Enjoy!

  2. The CEO of the greenleaf institute, Dr. Kent Keith, actually came to my school to talk about servant leadership a couple of weeks ago. Very interesting guy.

    Jesus was our ultimate model to follow? He was little more than a homeless hippy as far as I can tell.

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