How to Lead: Theory and Practice

We have addressed how to be perceived as a leader. We have also covered how to rise to power and authority in an organization by developing personal and positional power.

This is just the beginning. Sure, these considerations will help gain and maintain leadership in organizations, but they are not what leaders have to do to be effective. They have to manage others to achieve goals through them. Once you are accepted as a leader, what do you do? How do you lead?

Changing Leadership Theories

The study of leadership has undergone tremendous changes and will probably continue to do so. A review paper* described how attention moved toward charismatic, visionary and inspirational leadership in the 1970s. Prior to this time, leadership was analyzed as a series of transactions between superiors and subordinates. Newer leadership theories are referred to as “new genre” leadership. Many competing new genre leadership theories define behaviors according to different dimensions. Transformational leadership is the most popular new genre leadership paradigm today.

Challenges to New Genre Leadership Theories

To be fair, researchers who study leadership face many challenges.

These new genre theories imply that changes in behavior and practices can change a leader’s effectiveness. Unfortunately, this attractive hope is not well substantiated. Though it has been a great commercial success for authors of popular business books, business retreats, business schools, and training programs, there is not substantial academic evidence for leadership development.

What's more, much of their findings are based on surveys that are either self-assessed by a leader or are collected from managers’ superiors or subordinates. The data collected by these surveys are personal impressions of a leader, not how effective leaders have been in making measureable progress toward an objective. Effective leadership is more than just making people around you happy: it is about getting results. Unfortunately, these surveys do not measure progress toward organizational objectives.*

Agle et al. tested whether an historical relationship between leader charisma and organizational performance existed using stock market and Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) data.** The researchers looked at measurable outcomes such as share price return, return on equity, return on assets, sales growth and profit margin. They found that a leader’s charisma only predicted sales growth and nothing else, even after changing assumptions used to find any relationship.

It should be noted that a relationship was found between transformational leadership on the perception of performance. Apparently charisma is much better at convincing people an organization is succeeding than actually enabling the organization to succeed.

Ling et al. found that the impact of transformational leadership is higher for small and medium businesses.*** These researchers used the same measure of sales growth and found that transformational leadership has a greater correlation with sales growth as firms become smaller.

A focus on only one financial variable out of many does not inspire confidence.

Broader Frameworks

Another weakness of new genre leadership theories is that many of their findings are already explained by more general, well-established theories.

For example, the Five Factor Model (FFM) of personality is effective at predicting to what extent a leader will adopt transformational leadership.* The connection between extraversion and transformational leadership was found to be robust to data combined from multiple research studies.** This calls into question whether the results of transformational leadership are simply a result of more basic aspects of a person’s personality. 

In addition, transformational leadership incorporates concepts from the psychology of motivation. What is the value of a paradigm that recycles motivators from Frederick Herzberg’s two-factor theory of motivators and hygiene factors?

A Practical Perspective

With so many competing theories in the field of leadership, why should a manager spend time learning any of them? There are two important benefits of studying the leading leadership theories.

First, learning about each of these leadership theories can help people develop a vocabulary so that they can talk to each other about leadership. Many people know about transformational leadership, for example. Learning about concepts from transformational theory will enable you to speak with others about leadership issues in your workplace.

Second, findings based on each leadership paradigm discover practical lessons for leaders which can help them be more effective. Many of these models have discovered behaviors that leaders should avoid and behaviors that leaders should imitate. These findings have lasting practical value, even as theories become less popular or change over time.

Which theories should be studied?

Four leadership theories have been selected for review based on their popularity and practical value. There are other paradigms about leadership other than these, and in the future many more could surface.

We will consider three modern, popular leadership paradigms: transformational leadership developed by Bernard Bass and Bruce Avolio, servant leadership developed by Robert Greenleaf, and Daniel Goleman’s method of categorizing leadership styles according to emotional intelligence. 

We will also cover trait leadership, its limitations and its implications.

How to Lead: Theory and Practice536How to Lead: Theory and Practice