Overhauling how we teach leadership by Sandra J. Peart


DeM Banter: not sure I agree, but not sure where I disagree either. I have always struggled with the tension between the academic and the practitioner (and, yes…we NEED both), so that might be my issue. As an academic Ms Peart notes, we must “move beyond the narrow focus on the person at the expense of culture and ethics. We need to recognize and help our students appreciate that leaders operate within a set of culturally determined norms, within a particular temporal and spatial context.” As a practitioner, I have to say…no €#¥£! It is up to the leader to wrestle with the context and the environment, to understand it, and if required to shape it….not to bemoan and blame it. But perhaps I miss Sandra’s point and simply agree…perhaps she is simply stating the obvious. Your thoughts?

Washington Post By Sandra J. Peart, Published: February 12
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The public long has lamented the state of “leadership” in America, referring often to a deficit in political or business leadership. Scandals like the ones with Bernie Madoff and David Petraeus year after year confirm our sense that we should find better leaders. The question is, how best to do so?

When we conflate ethical leadership with ethical leaders, we spend too much time bemoaning the fact that our leaders aren’t all really good people. Instead, we need to spend more time looking at whether we have good norms for choosing our leaders and holding them accountable, and good processes from which leadership emerges and functions ethically.

It’s time for those of us who teach and write about leadership explicitly to acknowledge the essential difference between studying leaders and studying leadership.

There is nothing wrong with a study of leadership that includes the study of leaders, both the very good as well as the very bad. It’s an approach used in many courses and much scholarship about leadership. We ask and try to answer questions about the best president, the worst despot and so on.

Yet though the allure of “greatness” never fully will disappear — it makes for good reading, after all — we need to move further away from this focus on “great” men and women. Fortunately, over the past few decades, leadership scholars gradually have begun asking additional questions: Who were the leader’s followers? Are they indeed followers, or would we better understand them as participants? Can leadership emerge from a process of discussion? Can an idea or purpose, rather than an individual, become a group’s leader?

The future of how we study and understand leadership was the focus of a recent symposium at the University of Richmond’s Jepson School of Leadership Studies, where I serve as dean. There, it became evident that the latest research indeed treats leadership as a phenomenon much more complex than the person who holds authority.

Those of us in leadership studies need to fully embrace this newer way of thinking. We need to move beyond the narrow focus on the person at the expense of culture and ethics. We need to recognize and help our students appreciate that leaders operate within a set of culturally determined norms, within a particular temporal and spatial context. A president inherits a specific set of economic conditions. A prime minister operates with a minority government. A new CEO enters into a culture largely shaped before she arrives.

The problem with using leaders as a starting point for studying leadership is that it draws attention away from the study of institutions, norms and rules within which leadership functions. We might have some sense that transparency matters in leadership or that reciprocity is important, but our attention more often turns to the leader’s biographical or psychological details.

Take Abraham Lincoln. A traditional leadership study would examine his persuasion skills, his vision, his ability to catalyze change. But history provides us an even richer data set. We should spend more time trying to understand those who worked for, with and against him — as well as those who didn’t engage his rhetoric at all — in an effort to gain a clearer sense of the leadership challenges Lincoln faced and how he dealt with them. When we start to think in broader terms than personality, we come to more robust conclusions about leadership, what works and what doesn’t

Controlled experiments provide a second rich set of possibilities. By varying the conditions under which leaders are chosen or operate, scholars have derived more insight into the efficacy of ethical leadership. For example, recent experimental work compared the influence of leaders when the leader is chosen randomly versus elected democratically. A follow-up experiment varied the degree of transparency of a leader’s actions and found much more cooperation when the actions were transparent rather than opaque.

Leadership is complex and requires many lenses to understand it. Psychology is helpful, yes, but so are history and philosophy, science and economics. It’s time to recognize that leadership is more capacious than the study of leaders and followers. We must cut this Gordian knot.

Sandra J. Peart is the dean of the University of Richmond’s Jepson School of Leadership Studies.

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4 Replies to “Overhauling how we teach leadership by Sandra J. Peart”

  1. Sorry, Bill, but I have to take a side and say that I agree with Dean Peart. I interpret her recommendation to be that when studying or talking about leadership we need to stop migrating towards the leaders and away from context. I think she poses a bit of the chicken or the egg question – is it the context that makes the leader or the leader that makes the context? If we were to spend more time understanding how transformational ideas are spawned, nutured, and shaped within a group and eventually a leader and a following emerge to carry it forward, we might be able to accelerate the time between the sowing of these seeds in an organization to the moment they sprout and the bear fruit. Such insights could transform leadership as we know it.

    1. Roger: disagreement is good… I do disagree…. and I think this is indeed that cleavage between the practitioner and the academic. The context and culture exists…they just are…always. The leader must operate in the context, understand it, and morph/bend it to his/her will. Having been in a myriad of leadership positions…. the context is always different. There are times I have been very wrong about the context and environment I was stepping into and had to adapt my leadership quickly to situation I found myself in… in fact that happens more than not.

      I do agree we need to ask…”Who were the leader’s followers? Are they indeed followers, or would we better understand them as participants? Can leadership emerge from a process of discussion?

      I disagree with…”Can an idea or purpose, rather than an individual, become a group’s leader?” An idea or purpose can not move on it’s own and I have been in organizations where leaders throw out ideas and NEVER follow up.

      Her Lincoln example is excellent when we have the GREATER than 20/20 lens of history to look through. If Lincoln did not have a vision, strategy and ideas… the context and culture would not have mattered. Sure someone else may have picked up the reigns and led, but there is a still a leader who understands the culture and context in which he must operate in order to get things done. Culture and context always exist and I know a ton of managers that sit around and bemoan it… and get nothing done.

      The leader must accept, learn, adapt, and flex to the circumstance he finds himself in. Of course… I know we might be saying the same thing in a different way… but the leader in much more important than the context. A strong leader will comprehend the situation and adapt and lead. Simplistic perhaps… but honestly, I am a simple guy.

      1. Simple is good, Bill. Leadership is complex, and there are many things that we can pick on in this discussion. Here’s one – that an idea or purpose can become a group’s leader. That doesn’t sit right with me either and maybe a bit far fetched; however, a key ingredient for transformational leadership is clear purpose. That purpose can and should eclispe the “leader(s)”, otherwise the masses will not be moved to change. The “leader” is then more the primary “spokesperson”, “champion”, “change agent”, and/or “leading participant”. Let’s take Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Civil Rights Movement for example – was Dr. King the sole leader? Was the movement his idea? Or was he it’s leading spokesperson? Or was the time right in America? Were there enough other leading advocates to tip the scales? Clearly, Dr. King rose to the occassion, thank goodness.

      2. Roger: I think we are agreeing more than we are disagreeing. Whatever the cause, it can not be all about the leader…but then again, the cause will never succeed without the leader.

        My issue with the article, was the author’s point on not focusing on great leaders but on the culture, collective, condition, environmentals of the situation. The culture will always be… and will remain in stasis until stimulated by a leader.

        So yes… important to understand the culture…but it will remain static until a great leader engages. My fear… we teach folks this and we diminish what a leader adds to any issue or fight. We will have people (as we do today) that sit around and ponder their navel lint for months…years… and no one jumps into the pool to mix it up. Yes… simple is good… I like simple, but totally understand the complexity… The complexity is in the simplicity…

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