Defining the indefinable phenomena of leadership
- Written by Brent Duncan, PhD
From perceiving the leader as a great man who molds the future to see the leader as any individual who acts on faith, a brief inventory of leadership perspectives helps to illuminate the challenges of understanding leadership and how to be an effective leader. However, neither promotes understanding of leadership nor enhances the ability to lead. Exploring definitions offered by contemporary scholars may provide some additional enlightenment.
After reviewing leadership definitions from various perspectives, Jon Pierce and John Newstrom (2008) found “as many definitions given to leadership as there have been authors.” They conclude that a single definition of leadership is not possible; then they offer their own:
Leadership is a sociological phenomenon (a process) involving the intentional exercise of influence by one person over one or more individuals, to guide activities toward the attainment of some mutual goal, a goal that requires interdependent action among members of the group. (p. 10)
To the layperson, such an approach may raise an eyebrow due to its meticulous attempt to define what the author says is indefinable. The non-scholar or practitioner may feel more comfortable with expressions like, a leader is someone who is in charge, a leader is someone who takes action, a leader is someone who has followers, or leadership means influencing others to achieve goals. However, such simplicity does not seem to flourish in academic discussions of leadership—and may not be enough for understanding a complex process.
Even the extensive definition offered by Pierce and Newstrom (2008) presents limitations when faced with reality because it emphasizes that leadership is an intentional process when social psychology demonstrates that influence is a mutual process that can be unintentional as well as intentional (Aronson, 2008).
After his review of numerous definitions, Gary Yukl (2010) concurs with Pierce and Newstrom (2008) by concluding that the “definition of leadership is arbitrary and subjective” (p. 8), making it virtually impossible to arrive at a single definition. This does not mean that any of the competing definitions are right or wrong, but that each provides different perspectives on a “complex, multifaceted phenomenon” (p. 8).
Like Pierce and Newstrom, Yukl (2010) concludes that no single definition exists; then offers his own definition:
“Leadership is the process of influencing others to understand and agree about what needs to be done and how to do it, and the process of facilitating individual and collective efforts to accomplish shared goals” (p. 8).
Looking for clarity in disparity
The common elements among most definitions are influence, people, and goals, meaning that leadership is the influence over other people to accomplish goals. Outside of these common components, scholars have such varied and fundamental disagreements over the definition of leadership that some question if it is a valid subject for research (Yukl, 2010; Pierce, Leadership (MGTS 4431), 2007).
No definition means limited valid measurements, which restricts viable research. Further complicating the problems with a lack of definition is that interpreters tend to argue about the meaning of the elements upon which they disagree. For example, “influence” is a common element of most leadership definitions; however, different scholars have different understandings of influence: from an individual to others, from others to individual, or a shared process. Is influence seen from an individual role, a shared process, a natural part of a social system, or a pattern of relationships?
The examples from Yukl (2010) and Pierce and Newstrom (2008) demonstrate the challenge scholars have had in understanding and defining leadership. Although the scientific study of leadership has generated thousands of studies and offered a multitude of divergent definitions, knowledge of any or all the studies does not translate into effective leadership.
Academicians who devote their careers to studying and teaching leadership may have neither experience nor the ability to apply their knowledge in a practical setting. Likewise, a person who lacks an academic foundation in leadership studies can be an effective leader, even when implementing practices that counter research. This does not mean that leadership studies are futile. Gaining knowledge of leadership studies can help a leader adjust practices to enhance leadership effectiveness. However, extensive knowledge of leadership studies translates into neither wisdom nor ability.
Emphasizing this point, David Day, Michelle Harrison, and Stanley Halpin (2009) proposed that effective leadership is the result of a developmental process that can take a lifetime of experience. Knowledge of leadership theory and proven practices can accelerate leadership development by providing a guide to the relevant concepts and practices for different situations (p. 7).
Toward methodological myopia
The challenges of integrating disciplines for the practical application becomes more evident when considering a syllabus for a leadership course prepared by John Pierce (2007), the author of a popular college textbook on leadership. Building his case from assertions offered by other leadership scholars, Pierce argues that pursuing relevance in leadership studies is “wrong” (pp. L-5). To Pierce and other scholars that he quotes, leadership studies should not provide practical answers to questions that affect people or help students learn how to lead or run an organization. Instead, the academic study of leadership should shape the scholar’s perspective of leadership, so the scholar has a framework for learning how to lead when they obtain a job.
This seems to be asserting that the purpose of leadership education in college is to tell students what they should think about leadership, not to teach them how to lead. Declaring that leadership studies are not and should not be relevant exposes a divide between academics and reality that helps to illuminate why academic researchers have such difficulty defining leadership, and why some question the value of leadership as a topic for academic research (Yukl, 2010; Pierce & Newstrom, 2008).
The divide between research and reality is not universal in academic literature. Hughes, Ginnet, and Curphy (2005) allude to the importance of psychology for the leadership process when they emphasize that “leadership involves both the rational and emotional sides of human experience” (8). With knowledge of human psychology and group dynamics, leaders can better determine the correct mix of rational or emotional appeals to use for a situation (Tobey & Manning, 2009) and measure the consequences of each. Further, understanding social psychology can help leaders understand how the social environment influences others to do things they might not do alone and use that knowledge to manipulate outcomes. Regarding the value of organizational behavior knowledge to leadership, Schermerhorn, Hunt, & Osborn (2007) propose that knowledge of organizational behavior skill is one of the fundamental building blocks of effective leadership [See Image 1: Building Blocks of Leadership].
Journey to practicality
In their proposal that “leadership development is a journey encompassing the entire adult lifespan,” Day, et al. (2009) argued that analyzing elements of leadership through isolated theoretical perspectives limits comprehension of complex phenomena. Understanding leadership requires having a “sound foundation in human development,” which integrates multiple disciplines that are related to leadership, “especially cognitive, social, developmental, and organizational psychology” (p. 4).
Contrary to Pierce’s insistence that leadership studies should be irrelevant, considering leadership as a developmental process suggests that leadership studies have immediate and practical benefits. To Day et al., an integrative approach to leadership studies offers a practical means to “accelerate leader development” (p. 5) so organizations can enhance flexibility and adaptability in a demanding turbulent environment.
Aronson, E. (2008). The social animal (10 ed.). New York, NY, USA: Worth Publishers.
Day, D. D., Harrison, M. M., & Halpin, D. V. (2009). An integrative approach to leader development: Connecting adult development, identity, and expertise. New York, NY: Psychology Press.
Hughes, R. L., Ginnett, R. C., & Curphy, G. J. (2005). Leadership: Enhancing the lessons of experience (5th ed.). New York: McGraw-Hill.
Pierce, J. L. (2007). Leadership (MGTS 4431). Madison, WI: University of Wisconsin.
Pierce, J. L., & Newstrom, J. W. (2008). Leaders and the leadership process (5th ed.). New York, NY: McGraw-Hill/Irwin.
Schermerhorn, J. R., Hunt, J. G., & Osborn, R. N. (2007). Organizational Behavior (9th ed.). New York: John Wiley & Sons, Inc.
Tobey, D. H., & Manning, M. R. (2009). Melting the glacier: Activating neural mechanisms to create rapid large-scale organizational change. Organizational Change and Development, 17, 175-209.
Yukl, G. (2010). Leadership in organizations (7th ed.). New York, NY: Pearson Prentice Hall.
(C) 2020 by Dr. Brent Duncan. All rights reserved.