Essay: Effective Leadership

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¶ … Leadership: In theory and in practice

The 20th century saw an explosion of leadership theories that attempted to explain why certain individuals seemed to excel in affording more capable leadership than their equally qualified counterparts when at the helm of organizations. Two different leadership strains of leadership theory emerged during the era. The first strain stressed the need for organizations to find uniquely capable people to fulfill essential roles. This might be called a derivative of the early 'great man' theory of leadership, which suggested that a single individual with unusual talent and skill was required to inspire the masses to reach a common goal. A derivative of this approach is called 'trait theory' which suggested that organizations must find individuals with special character traits. Leadership was a quality that could be refined but not instilled through technical know-how according to trait theory.

In contrast, more participative theories of leadership underlined the need to create functional hierarchical organizations. These theories took into consideration the emotional side of human behavior and acknowledged the value of ordinary employees. New theories reflected the desire to incorporate evolving concept of human psychology into organizational and behavioral studies. Today, "contingency theories of leadership focus on particular variables related to the environment that might determine which particular style of leadership is best suited for the situation....Behavioral theories of leadership [suggest] people can learn to become leaders through teaching and observation...Participative leadership theories suggest that the ideal leadership style is one that takes the input of others into account" (Wagner 2008). In other words, there is no unique set of leadership traits or skills, rather it depends upon the situation, and if individuals learn the correct evaluative and communication skills, any person on any level of the organizational hierarchy can make a contribution to the leadership. Yet many observers of the field have suggested that managerial theories have essentially gone 'full circle,' and harkening back to earlier theories of great man or trait-based leadership, there has a renewed focus on training single individuals to inspire others (also called "transactional leadership") or to use a carrot and stick approach whereby system of reward and punishment is deployed to create a common organizational culture (Wagner 2008).

Both theoretical camps reflect a common understanding that had developed intuitively over the years that simply possessing intelligence is not enough to ensure that an individual could inspire and command others. An individual who is a leader is or has something special, whether innate, or because of a particular match of circumstance, organization, and training in interpersonal skills. The former trait-based approach is still reflected in traditional organizations such as General Electric, while the latter participative approach has been embraced by more creative approaches to leadership, extending even to the incorporation of 'theater sports' in leadership training programs. However, the question emerges if this apparent theoretical shift in leadership theory has really informed and improved actual leadership programs. Or does the theoretical basis and justification of leadership programs come after the fact, after such programs are created and the organization seeks to explain their existence with rhetoric? Merely because leadership theory has changed on a theoretical level in terms of its descriptive value within the academy does not mean that it has improved in terms of its prescriptive success of penetrating how leadership organizations actually operate in the real, business world.

The 'great man' or 'trait-based' notion of supporting 'the best' leaders still seems to be reflected in many contemporary organizational leadership programs, which often seem to be extensions of recruiting and internship programs conducted at universities across the country. For example, while General Electric (GE) is well-known for its famous 'Six Sigma' or zero-defect production process, its formal leadership approach is fairly conventional, and in practice of not in actual self-definition adheres to what might be known as 'great person' or 'trait theory' concepts of leadership theory, or the intuitive idea that certain individuals are born to lead while others are born to follow. GE's leadership program recruits recent college graduates who have a minimum GPA of 3.0, relevant work experience in an area of interest (spanning everything from technological capabilities to human resource activities); past leadership experience within work, school, or student organizations; and a commitment to the expressed values of GE (Leadership Programs, 2008, GE). The GE leadership training program provides work experience, training, and requires certain past skills, such as an engineering degree. Successful individuals who complete the program may secure permanent employment within the company, and financial and institutional support for further personal enrichment in the form of the ability to pursue an MBA.

The GE 'general IQ quotient' view of the nature of leadership, in contrast to a situational approach is reflected in the fact that the program allows the leadership trainee to rotate through several assignments within the candidate's chosen discipline. It strives to expose the leader-in-training to as much of GE as possible. A broad rather than in-depth focus is taken, since rather than rising up through the ranks, these leaders are being groomed for top management positions, regardless of their field of expertise. Instead of a participative leadership model that reflects the idea of every level of the organization making a contribution and lower-level employees having equal value and input in terms of how organizations function, the uniquely beneficial and combustible combination of knowledge and innate leadership talent is upheld by the GE philosophy. Its leadership program is described to prospective candidates as "a great way to acquire a broad overview of the company while quickly developing your professional skills" (Leadership Programs, 2008, GE). Leadership, rather than experience in a specific area of expertise within a company function and situation is what is vital to the success, not the ability of a lower-level individual to give insight as to how to improve a process. GE's previous, famous CEO Jack Walsh as the designer of its Six Sigma no-defect philosophy was famous for his rigorous, detail-oriented and 'total' approach to management. When the advice of lower-level individuals was solicited, it was with the intention of fulfilling a goal passed through the organization from the top down, to improve a process to meet a target defined by the top management. GE's Six Sigma approach is defined as: "if you can measure how many 'defects' you have in a process, you can systematically figure out how to eliminate them and get as close to 'zero defects' as possible. To achieve Six Sigma Quality, a process must produce no more than 3.4 defects per million opportunities. An 'opportunity' is defined as a chance for nonconformance, or not meeting the required specifications. This means we need to be nearly flawless in executing our key processes' ("What is Six Sigma," 2008, GE).

The structure of the GE leadership program's outreach to the outside for future leaders appears somewhat in contrast with its stated, more participated list of company values such as "integrity." The company description of this cornerstone value states: "Each of us has the responsibility to 'do the right thing,' and as leaders we must foster a culture of compliance. We have to operate every day knowing we are all impacted if a single employee fails to get it right. We must all do our part to keep that from happening, and especially to ensure that all our employees know they can and should report integrity concerns without fear of retaliation" (Krenicki 2008). The commitment to quality and sense that everyone must be 'on board' with company missions, and report unethical behavior does not translate into every employee giving input into how to improve processes -- there is, implicitly, one way to 'get it right,' that is the GEO way, as defined by upper-level management. In GE's slogan of "imagination at work," displayed on the opening image heralding its webpage, the company still displays the iconic image of Alfred Edison, a defined as a great man who gave the world electricity. The GE leadership philosophy that stresses that it is 'okay' to report unethical behavior is thus somewhat at odds with the philosophy of perfectly calibrated 'zero defect' policies in the pursuit of a managerial goal, as individual input is not seen as a value, unless it fits into its place in the hierarchy. Its actual leadership program, suggests that modern leadership theories do not always have as much influence as one might suspect upon company programs. In the case of GE, the wording of the company's website occasional reflects a more popular, participative approach to suit its image, but its 'great person' and trait-based structure of its leadership program was developed to advance the goals set by the CEO and reflects the need to perfect processes and meet benchmarks, not to solicit input from employees. Employees are groomed as already identified leaders to meet company goals.

A more genuinely participative approach is deployed by a theater arts company called Impact Factory that specializes in training individuals in leadership skills for corporate enterprises. Through the use of… [END OF PREVIEW]

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