Leadership Perspectives

Synthesizing disparate perspectives to improve leadership effectiveness

Disagreement on simple terms

A brief inventory of scientific inquiry about leadership uncovers perspectives that see leadership as traits, behaviors, situations, interactions, relationships, networks, substitutes, followers, and unseen forces. Attempting to consider which perspective is correct seems unnecessary, because the value in the discussion is in realizing that each perspective presents a different piece of the same dynamic and multi-dimensional puzzle. In other words, leadership is all of these and more.

However, studying leadership will not necessarily translate into understanding or ability; rather than clarifying leadership, scientific study has muddled the simplicity that once existed in common wisdom and that seems impossible in a turbulent environment.

For example, the disparate perspectives explored in "Leadership Perspectives" offered three similarities:

  • influence,
  • others, and
  • goals.

This suggests a simple definition that integrates commonalities, like this:

  • Leadership is influencing others to achieve goals.

However, even this simple integrative definition can cause conflict.

In a short-attention-span business environment with myopic focus on efficiencies for survival, this definition could pass in the boardroom. However, from a social psychology perspective, influence is a reciprocal process that can be unintentional as well as intentional (Aronson, 2008). Further, influence can be positive or negative, meaning that it can influence people toward or away from goals. Besides, conflicts can exist between individual goals, organizational goals, the leader’s goals, and society’s goals.

Ethical dilemmas

Some leadership scholars might argue that influencing others toward bad goals in unethical, while others might argue that influencing others to go against personal interests is unethical, while yet others might argue that influencing others to go against the interests of the group is unethical. These scholars might disagree on which goal is ethical, but may all agree that influencing others to take unethical actions does not fit in the definition of leadership, which to them could mean influencing others to do good. Then, some might argue about the meaning of “good”. Others may then argue that limiting understanding of leadership through such a perspective is counter-productive to understanding the processes by which people influence others.

Understanding how leaders use influence for ethical and unethical means can help followers to inoculate themselves against people who use their power to manipulate others against their own interests, to maintain critical thinking under pressure from powerful people and groups, and to make informed choices about how or whether they will follow.

Such arguing could continue for pages and not be resolved; just as the understanding and definition of leadership is not likely to be clarified by scientific inquiry. In short, even attempting to discuss the areas of commonality among all of the definitions introduces conflict because scholars cannot agree on the definitions of common concepts.

Dissonance between scholarly knowledge and practical ability

Even if scholars were able to agree on a common definition, and even if someone were to gain a full and complete knowledge of what it takes to be an effective leader, the quality of leadership and the ability to lead would not likely change. Research and knowledge do not necessarily translate into experience and ability. As an analogy, despite intensely studying English from pre-school through high school and into college, few Japanese ever develop the ability to speak English. This is because their study of English does not involve speaking English.

The students who immerse themselves in the language by studying abroad develop the capacity to speak it, while those who are limited to pursuing the knowledge of English rarely learn it. 

When eminent leadership scholars like John Pierce (2007) argue that the study of leadership is about gaining knowledge not about learning how to lead, they are promoting the same approach to leadership that the Japanese take when they study English: the pursuit of knowledge, no practical experience. 

Just as a typical Japanese student will spend more than a decade studying a language he or she will never be able to speak, leadership scholars may dedicate their efforts to understanding leadership, but may never learn how to lead. Academic mastery of leadership knowledge translates into leadership capacity about as well as riding in an elevator translates into the ability to build a skyscraper.

Hiding behind a boast of irrelevance, Pierce (2007) seems to provide fodder for those who would argue that leadership is not a valid topic for scientific inquiry. Although those who advocate for irrelevancy in the college classroom may be a dominant force in academics, they are not the only voices—and their voices may be diminishing. 

Applying scholarly knowledge for leadership success

Market-based adult education programs are gaining popularity and influencing academic discussions by offering programs designed to provide immediate relevancy for working professionals (Berg, 2005). Similar to traditional universities, adult higher education institutions promote the pursuit of knowledge as a primary focus for its students. However, unlike programs that promote irrelevancy through the pure pursuit of irrelevant knowledge, non-traditional adult higher education institutions tend also help students develop the competencies for acheiving professional success, and to develop the leadership skills necessary for benefiting their communities (para. 2).

The adult higher education institution can accomplish this mission through a collaborative learning model in which students actively learn how to lead and follow in work groups and classroom communities. The institution that insists on relevance does not tolerate passive learning of irrelevant material. The students pursue knowledge from the same texts used in traditional programs, but are expected to actively influence other students to achieve academic and professional goals, and to continually demonstrate that they can apply that knowledge in the classroom and in their communities.

Such adult education environments are active leadership development programs that provide value through pursuit of knowledge and practical application of that knowledge in real-world settings. Military and business organizations offer other models of effective leadership development programs that have integrated the wisdom and practices learned from practical experience with the knowledge gained from scientific inquiry to develop leadership competencies in members to build organizations (Day, Harrison, & Halpin, 2009). 

Practical experience translates across environments

When leadership scholars dismiss practical applications of leadership as invalid maxims that lack scientific support (Pierce, 2007) , they suggest some interesting areas for research.

  1. To what degree would the leadership knowledge gained by the scientific pursuit of knowledge translate into leadership effectiveness in the boardroom or on the battlefield?
  2. Could leadership scholars effectively lead an organization using their extensive knowledge of leadership?
  3. To what degree does leadership experience gained on the battlefield or in the boardroom translate into leadership effectiveness in an academic setting?
  4. Would a seasoned military officer or experienced corporate executive be able to lead effectively in a college classroom?

I hypothesize that practical leadership skills developed in one environment can translate into other environments, as long as the individual is able to gain the knowledge necessary to operate effectively in the new environment. However, knowledge alone is neither wisdom nor experience. This suggests a second hypothesis:

  • The career leadership scholar and the scholar might be able to act as a consultant, but would likely have difficulty leading an organization outside of his or her classroom.

Test relevancy of academic knowledge

Adult higher education models provide additional examples that supports this hypothesis. Promoting practical education with immediate relevancy, a prerequisite for teaching at typical adult higher education institutions is not only education but also proven leadership in the knowledge area. This means training successful professionals to facilitate learning within a dynamic collaborative learning environment.

I have had the opportunity to train dozens of faculty members, and have found that leaders in business and education tend to adapt easily to such models to become effective leaders in a collaborative adult learning environment. However, I have also seen that career academicians who are used to operating in the parent-child power structure of a traditional lecture-test academic environment tend to have difficulty adapting to a collaborative learning model that requires distributed leadership skills for facilitating adult students towards learning independence. 

Integrate research and application to enhance leadership effectiveness

Comparing the applicability of academic knowledge to leadership applications and the transferability of practical experience to the classroom might illuminate which approach is better for enhancing leadership effectiveness: scientifically studying leadership or learning proven concepts from successful leaders and applying those concepts in real-world applications. The academic pursuit of knowledge does not have to be the “irrelevant” endeavor that some scholars demand it should be (Pierce, 2007). Enhancing knowledge about leadership through scientific studies can help leaders and aspiring leaders enhance effectiveness, just as exploring real-world applications can help scholars enhance understanding of leadership.

References Cited

Aronson, E. (2008). The social animal (10 ed.). New York, NY, USA: Worth Publishers.

Berg, G. A. (2005). Lessons from the edge: For-profit and nontraditional higher education in America. Westport, CT: The American Council on Higher Education/Praeger Publishers.

Day, D. D., Harrison, M. M., & Halpin, D. V. (2009). An integrative approach to leader development: Connecting adult development, indentity and expertise. New York, NY: Psychology Press.

Pierce, J. L. (2007). Leadership (MGTS 4431). Madison, WI: University of Wisconsin.

University of Phoenix. (2010). Mission and purpose. Retrieved November 15, 2010, from University of Phoenix: http://www.phoenix.edu/about_us/about_university_of_phoenix/mission_and_purpose.html


Note, this article is an exerpt from

"Leadership Perspectives: Improving leadership effectiveness through methodological integration" (C) 2013 by Brent Duncan, PhD. All rights reserved.