Guidelines for Understanding Leadership Literature

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    Guidelines for Reading Leadership Literature

    © Copyright Carter McNamara, MBA, PhD, Authenticity Consulting, LLC.

    There is a recent explosion of literature about leadership. The literature offers a great deal of advice from many different perspectives, which can be quite confusing to readers. (After years of reading leadership literature, I’ve begun to notice that, despite the seemingly different perspectives, many writers are actually asserting very similar points of view.)

    The guidelines in this article help the reader to get the most out of leadership literature by helping them to closely examine the various points of view and suggestions from writers. This article is referenced from the topic Leadership (an Introduction) in the Free Management Library. and are referenced at the end of this article.

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    About Potential Confusion Among Readers of Leadership Literature

    Readers sometimes become confused while reading literature about leadership in businesses. This confusion happens for a variety of reasons, none of them is anyone’s fault. However, there are some guidelines that might help the reader to avoid confusion and get the most out of this literature.

    We live and work in a fascinating, yet fearful time. Increased competition is forcing organizations to implement customer-driven policies where industry-driven strategies worked before. To be more adaptable, organizations are decentralizing. Organizations are transforming, reinventing, and reengineering. As a result, there is often a great deal of pain in organizations.

    There is an increasing number of practitioners, educators, and writers who are trying to help. Each person feels strongly about his or her advice. Among those trying to help are a wide variety of suggestions and a wide variety of views. This situation can cause a great deal of confusion, particularly in readers who are new to reading about the concept of leadership.

    After 20 years of reading literature about leadership (including intensive focus during doctoral studies), I’ve gleaned several insights that I share below. By no means do I intend to disparage writers in the following (I am a writer, too!). I sincerely believe that each writer is attempting to help leaders in organizations. I offer the following guidelines in the hope that readers and writers alike will get the most out of leadership literature in the future.

    First, let’s look at some causes for potential confusion among readers. Then we’ll review some basic guidelines that hopefully will avoid confusion in the future.

    “Leading”: Offering a Definition as a Starting Point

    At a minimum, “Leading” is influencing someone in some way. Most people will agree on at least this much of some ideal definition for the term. There are numerous, additional facets to this assertion that could be explored, but this simple definition may be enough to go forward in this article for now.

    Where the Confusion Often Starts: Traits Versus Roles

    A “leader” is someone who is leading — maybe. Some writers use the term “leader” as based on the formal role in an organization (“He is a leader, that is, he’s the CEO”.) Other writers refer to a “leader” as someone who is showing traits of leading (“He is the group leader for now, that is, he’s showing us where to go”.) However, many writers would disagree that a CEO is always a leader. For example, if an organization is floundering badly with little or no direction, maybe the CEO (a formal leader by nature of his top-level role) is not effectively leading the organization (that is, showing the traits of leading) and, therefore, is truly not a leader. It depends on one’s use of the word “leader”.

    Most would agree that the term “Leadership” refers to the ability to lead. Many writers use the term “leadership” to refer to a person who show traits of leading (“He’s shows strong leadership”). However, many writers also use the term to refer to the executive level of an organization (“The leadership decided we’re downsizing”.)

    Writers Have Varying Views on “Leading” and “Managing”

    Traditionally (although many would now disagree), the term “management” is described as the functions of planning, organizing, leading, and controlling (or coordinating) activities in an organization. “Managing” is explained as carrying out these activities. Courses in management often teach from this
    perspective. Some writers follow this view and believe that the activity of leading is but one aspect of management. Other writers disagree and assert that “managing” is planning, organizing, and controlling and that “leading” is a distinctly separate activity that primarily involves influencing people. An old adage that follows from this latter view is “Leaders do the right things. Managers do things right”. Another adage is “Leaders lead people, managers manage things”. Other writers would even disagree with this view, however. They would assert that, although a person happens to be carrying out activities that influence others if he or she does not hold a formal role in the organization with the title of “manager”, then he or she is not a “leader”.

    Writers Have Varying Views on Universal Versus Relative Perspectives on Leadership

    Some writers believe that there are universal principles and styles of leadership that should be consistent no matter the situation faced by the leader. These writers may assert, e.g., that an executive should retain a highly humanistic and participative style, whether a CEO in a hospital or a field general in a war.

    Other writers believe that the nature of leadership depends to a great extent on the situation. They might assert that a general exhibit a highly autocratic style, while a CEO should be highly humanistic and participative in a hospital.

    Some Writers Might Interchange Terms “Managing” and “Management”

    Occasionally, an article (often when comparing leading to managing) will assert that “leading” is different
    than “managing”, and later mention that “leading” is different than “management”. This can be particularly confusing for people who believe that a) leading is different than managing (which they believe to be organizing, planning and controlling), but that leading and managing together are management

    Some Writers Might Vary Modes of Time in Same Article

    For example, a writer might explain how a group member can be an informal leader in a group even though that member does not have the formal role of leader. Typically, the writer describes that the group follows the informal leader’s suggestions, listens to the informal leader more than other group members, etc. The writer may go on to assert that everyone throughout the organization needs to be a leader. However, at this point, it may not be clear if the writer is asserting that the person is a leader at that time — or always. Is the writer asserting that people throughout the organization should be leaders (by traits) always or sometimes depending on the situation?

    Some Writers Might Mix Reference to Traits and Roles

    In the above example where the writer is describing the informal leader in a group, the writer may continue to refer to the person throughout the rest of the article as “a leader” (no longer referring to the person’s traits that led the writer to conclude the person was the leader). The writer seems to have switched from asserting that a person is the leader at that time because of his or her traits to now be asserting that the person is the leader because the person is, well, “a leader”, that is, someone who will always be a leader (by trait) in any given situation.

    Along the same lines, some writers mention how important it is that everyone throughout the organization be a leader (by traits). Later, the writers will mention how important it is that the organization’s “leadership” (apparently now meaning the executive levels of the organization) take a strong role to ensure that everyone in the organization is a leader (by trait).

    Some Writers Vary Focus of the Term “Leader”

    Discussion about the question of “What makes a good leader?” has continued for decades, if not longer. Some people assert that a good leader (by trait) is someone who focuses on leading within a business to reach the business-specific goals of the business. A frequent counter to this assertion is “Well then was Hitler a good leader?” Others look at a leader (by trait) as someone who focuses on achieving vision, and always in a highly moral and socially conscious way.

    Is Sometimes Difficult to Glean Clear Message About Good Leadership

    All of the various suggestions about good leadership can sound very appealing, e.g., have clear vision, embrace change, lead from principles, be a servant to your people, cultivate community, focus on the future, etc. For various reasons, writers often don’t address how these suggestions can be implemented. In addition, many of us have different impressions of what these suggestions mean. At some point, these suggestions have to be translated to behaviors in the workplace. How does one know if they’re actually implementing the suggestions or not?

    Is Sometimes Difficult to Glean Consistent Message About Good Leadership

    Leading (whether leaders by traits or roles) is a very human activity. All of us are human. So most of us can offer a lot of advice about what a good leader should do. We want them to transform themselves and their organizations while ensuring that all of us have jobs. We suggest that leaders build teams, yet focus on employees. They should cultivate clarity, yet embrace change and chaos.

    Meanwhile, of course, no matter how much a person believes that leading is separate from managing, every leader must operate within certain budget constraints. Executive-level leaders (by role) hear from board members and others in the organization that the top priority is strong fiscal management. The struggle to take risks while managing cash flow can be overwhelming. Consequently, it can become quite confusing for these leaders to glean a consistent message from all of the ongoing advice.

    Suggestions to Get the Most Out of Leadership Literature

    The following guidelines are offered to help readers get the most from the advice offered by writers of leadership literature.

    1. Come to your own conclusion about “What is ‘management’? Managing? Leading? Are they different? Does it matter?”

    Even if your conclusion is “There is no clear definition” or “It doesn’t matter”, at least your conclusion will
    give you a stable frame of reference from which to consider assertions of various writers.

    2. Attempt to identify if the writer is talking about traits of a leader, the role of a leader or both

    3 Attempt to identify if the writer is talking about whether someone is a leader for now, in the future or always

    4. Attempt to identify the writer’s scope of the term “leader”. Do they focus on someone as being a leader in the organization or also in society, etc.?

    5. Attempt to glean any advice from the writer about how leaders can actually implement the values and principles suggested by the writer

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