Essay: Leadership Theory Has Undergone Significant Evolution

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Leadership theory has undergone significant evolution in the past hundred years. Taylor and Fayol provided basic descriptions of leadership function in for-profit enterprises. The leadership they described was perhaps more in line with what we today understand as management -- scientific control, planning and command -- but it provided a starting point. As leadership study has become more refined, it has allowed for us today to understand apply leadership theory to a wider range of situations, from government and military to the profit and not-for-profit sectors. At its core, leadership remains the art of marshaling resources to achieve a set of outcomes. It is only the methods of leadership practice that change with the situation. This notion is best described in contingency theory, wherein the nature of leadership and its most effective forms are dependent on the situation in question. This paper will analyze leadership theory, including its practical application in the author's life, in order to demonstrate this basic understanding of the nature of leadership and the relevance of contingency theory to understanding leadership today.

Applications of Leadership Theories in Business

When Taylor and Fayol broke down the leadership function into different elements of planning and control, they were describing leadership in a largely non-human function. At the time, this was predicated on an understanding of labor as part of a greater machine. In some industries, this view of business still holds, particularly in labor-intensive industries (often in the developing world) and in industries where much of the labor is conducted by machines. However, more human-centric forms of leadership theory have also emerged as an extension to this basic understanding of leadership. These human-centric forms recognize the contributions that humans make to an organization's performance, and are particularly relevant to knowledge-intensive industries, service industries and organizations that are facing significant organizational change.

The rapid pace of technological, political and legal change has given rise to a world in which organizations face situations of crisis and strong change more frequently than they did in the early 20th century. This gave rise to a split between management in situations of organizational stability -- transactional leadership -- and situations of organizational instability -- transformational leadership. Bass outlined transformational leadership in terms of how leaders affect followers to transform aspects of the organization including culture, behavior and to guide the followers towards the pursuit of organizational interests (ChangingMinds.org, 2010).

Strengths and Weaknesses of Contemporary Leadership Models

Modern leadership is often characterized as featuring two distinct leadership styles -- transaction and transformational. Situational leadership theory argues that the best leadership style of these two -- or the best blend of these two -- is dependent on the situation at hand. Few leaders, it is argued, fall neatly into either category. The majority of leaders not only incorporate elements of each style, but often can change their mix depending on their interpretation of the situation (ChangingMinds.org, 2010). Yukl (1999) argues further that there are conceptual weaknesses inherent in the transformational theory, including the poorly-defined nature of some of the concepts and the linkages between transformational leadership and charismatic leadership. The latter is a modern incarnation of past theories such as the Great Man Theory, in which charisma as a natural personality trait becomes a critical component of strong leadership. Charismatic leadership's main strength is its recognition of the intangible charisma on leadership ability, but its focus on this variable is at odds with the planning, command and control leadership functions that have been established in leadership theory since the early 20th century.

The dichotomy of transactional-transformational leadership has been modified by the situational and contingency theories such that neither is understood to exist in its purest form. These theories make intuitive sense, but ultimately their ability to shed light on the nature of strong leadership is compromised by the vagueness of understanding ideal leadership on the basis of oblique and ever-changing combinations of leadership styles and techniques. If contingency theory in particular is to be understood, it is going to be done more on the basis of a multidimensional, shifting continuum. Such a calculus-based model has yet to be derived in a manner that is easily understood and practical.

Influence, Power and Leadership

Tradition, Fayol-esque leadership theory understands leadership as deriving from formal authority, but modern leadership theory understands that there are multiple sources of influence, from formal authority to expertise to charisma to political connections and many other sources. The basic leadership function of marshaling resources towards specific outcomes depends strongly on the ability of the leader to influence those around him or her. While formal authority may allow the leader to exert influence over his or her direct followers, influence extends in other directions as well. Leaders must exert influence over other actors -- peers, suppliers, customers, politicians and superiors included. Leaders must understand the sources of influence that they may have over these different actors and exert that influence where needed to help the organization achieve its objectives.

Influence and power operate outside the realm of transformational/transactional leadership, and sources of influence can be used to affect change under either style or any combination thereof. Power and influence are a means by which either a transactional or transformational end can be achieved. There may be subtle shifts in the nature of a leader's power and ability to influence depending on the type of leadership. For example, the military relies heavily on formal power structures, whereas a manager in a creative company may rely heavily on other forms of influence to motivate the firm's self-guided employees in the right direction.

Initiating and Managing Change

The importance of studying transformational leadership implies that a major role of leaders is to initiate and manage the organizational change process. In ever-shifting environments, firms must make constant adjustments to the way that they pursue their goals. Perhaps more important is the ability of leadership to guide the firm through periods of revolutionary change. Nadler and Tushman (1990) described that the executive is the critical actor in the revolutionary or transformational change process.

This process begins with the leader as a visionary. While leaders must always operate with a vision of the future, during revolutionary change the leader must be able to envision a radically different version of the organization and communicate that vision concisely to the rest of the organization. Then, the leader must be able to elaborate on the steps required to bring the organization to that point. This is critical, because vision and charisma alone are insufficient to bring about large-scale change (Nadler & Tushman, 1990). Burke and Litwin (1992) outlined in their causal model of organizational performance and change the other factors that the leader can influence in order to achieve the desired level of change in an organization. This work supports Nadler-Tushman; charisma can impact on motivation and work unit climate but does not impact the other factors of systems and organizational structure. Leaders must be able to affect change on all of the relevant elements of the organization, not simply on the human elements, in order to bring about full-scale organizational change.

It is also critical that leaders recognize when change in required. Some leaders anticipate the need for change and move proactively, while others take a more reactionary approach. It is believed that the former approach is more effective, because the latter often places the organization behind its competitors in the process of responding to changes in external stimuli.

Factors Affecting Leadership

Burke and Litwin (1992) explain the role of organizational culture on leadership. Culture is an ingrained "way of doing things" in an organization. Culture can be reinforced over time and difficult to unwind, even when necessary for the survival of the organization. The leader, therefore, may often need to transform the culture of the organization in order to affect lasting change. Culture change, therefore, is perhaps the most important element in organizational change. Personal values are also important, because the leader's personal values are often reflected in the types of changes that are made and the ways in which those changes are made. It is important that the leader's personal values are reflected in the leadership style and the organization's objectives so that there is little or no conflict between these personal values and the actions undertaken.

Outcomes are critical for leadership. At its heart, leadership is about marshaling resources towards specific outcomes. Understanding the nature of those outcomes is therefore critical -- in order to lead one must have a destination in mind. The leader must not only focus on outcomes, but must also orient the followers towards those outcomes as well. An organization that is focused on a very specific, definable and measurable set of outcomes is more likely to achieve those outcomes.

Globalization has had a strong influence on modern leadership, in two keys ways. The first is that globalization impacts on the pace of change that is required. Even transactional leadership is affected by this change of pace, in that improvements must be constant rather… [END OF PREVIEW]

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