What the Brightest Scholars Say about Leadership

Leadership is based on complex phenomena

Published: Sep 15, 2010 06:09:49 AM IST
Updated: Sep 14, 2010 03:53:45 PM IST

Works on the subject of leadership weigh down bookstore shelves the world over. Tomes tell you how to be a 30-second manager, how to inspire your employees like Churchill, and the three keys to "strength-based leadership."

Everyone has been writing about leadership, in fact, except the people you would expect to be most active in the field: scholars.

"If we look at the leading research universities and at the business schools within them, the topic of leadership has been actually given fairly short shrift," says Harvard Business School professor Rakesh Khurana.

mg_34502_leadership_280x210.jpgThe Handbook of Leadership Theory and Practice, recently published by Harvard Business Press, aims to give the topic its intellectual due. Edited by Khurana and Nitin Nohria, who will become the new Dean of Harvard Business School on July 1, 2010, the Handbook brings together critical writings by some of the world's foremost scholars in fields ranging from psychology to economics, sociology, and history.

As Khurana explains below, leadership—what it means, why it matters—is an exciting and an increasingly urgent area of scholarly inquiry. But it wasn't always so. Vexing problems we experience in business and society may be due in part to the neglect of leadership studies in the academy for many years.

"If we had to characterize the path of work on leadership, it has been a lot like the metaphor of a blind man and an elephant. Until recently, leadership was the elephant, and there were a lot of blind people identifying different parts," says Khurana.

"What we tried to incorporate in the Handbook of Leadership Theory and Practice is how each different perspective illuminates key elements such as similarities and differences in leadership across task, culture, and identity. We don't offer a simple answer. Like any complex phenomena, scholars are in the earliest stages of beginning to understand the complexities of leadership.

"What we think we have done in this book is set the foundation for hopefully a long-term, programmatic approach to looking at the phenomena of leadership."

We asked Khurana to tell us about the current state and potential of leadership studies.

Martha Lagace: There's an urgent need for better leadership in institutions and in the world at large, as you and co-editor Nitin Nohria write in the introductory chapter. Yet until recently, scholars have found the subject of leadership difficult to tackle. Why has serious scholarship overlooked or avoided the topic of leadership?
Rakesh Khurana:
Business schools and increasingly even universities have made leadership a central part of their mission, asserting that they educate and develop leaders for society. And yet, if we look at the leading research universities and at the business schools within them, the topic of leadership is actually given fairly short shrift. The gap—between what is espoused and by the capacity to deliver—is glaring. In part, I think this gap has grown because leadership is such a complex phenomenon.

It's a phenomenon partly rooted in psychology with respect to the sense of identity that leaders have. It is rooted in sociology in the sense that leadership is a social construct. It's also a negotiated relationship that individuals have with other individuals or that individuals have with society. In addition, there is a cultural quality about what constitutes a leader that changes across social situations, whether we are discussing gender or issues in different countries where some styles would be regarded as leader-like and other styles would not being regarded as leader-like.

Leadership is also complex from an economic perspective because the consequences of leadership can't always be measured by financial measures. Some people we most honor as leaders sometimes have to deal with significant failure. So leadership can't be simply evaluated on its utilitarian outcomes.

Given the complexity of the phenomenon and its multidisciplinary nature, including its inability to answer basic questions such as whether leadership can be taught or developed, leadership research was neglected. This trend was exacerbated as research inside the academy moved more toward large computerized databases. Leadership largely dropped off the agenda in mainstream academic institutions.

It is ironic, though. If we go back to the origins of the modern social sciences in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, it is clear that scholars studied leadership closely. One example is sociologist Max Weber and his concern about the nature of authority: the foundation of authority that was located in traditional authority, charismatic authority, rational authority; and deep concern about the nature of what is seen as legitimate leadership in modern society.

The origins of psychology and its interest in leadership date back to Sigmund Freud and Erik Erikson. Many individuals tried to understand what leads certain people to believe that they can shape the social or cultural context in which they operate. Political science, government, and history paid attention; and even the economist Joseph Schumpeter, with his notion of individuals who operate outside the social structure and who can then innovate, staked out a tradition of trying to understand leadership in terms of entrepreneurship.

Q: The Handbook of Leadership Theory and Practice grew out of a conference of top scholars held at Harvard Business School in 2008 as part of the School's Centennial celebration. How did you bring people together?
Despite the fragmentation I've just mentioned, a variety of outstanding disciplinary scholars have been working on the phenomena, but many of them were hesitant to be labeled as scholars of "leadership." In sociology, for example, such research might fall under the rubric of elite studies. In government or history, scholars might focus on political power or presidential histories.

Harvard Business School as an institution has often been at the forefront of developing new multidisciplinary fields inside business education, such as strategy and organizational behavior. As part of the Centennial we saw a fantastic opportunity to begin closing the gap in the study of leadership. Due to the mission of the School ("We educate leaders who make a difference in the world"), our convening power, and the urgency of issues in leadership today, I think it was in the DNA of Harvard Business School to tackle this important subject.

The Centennial also presented itself as an opportunity to rethink our journey and decide where we wanted to go. We had great support from the Dean and the Division of Research. Under these circumstances and with the above framing, people were excited to convene and take stock of what we know about leadership from the various disciplines as well as what we know with respect to field work.

Q: What aspects of leadership were you most keen to explore during these discussions? What was the range of viewpoints?
We were clear that we wanted to have, first of all, an academic output: this book. That was most important. If we were going to make headway on the study of leadership, we needed to produce and take stock of the knowledge. For leadership to be taken seriously as an academic subject, it was important that the chapters in the book be written by outstanding scholars.

We first assembled a fairly robust list of serious scholars who were researching leadership even if they didn't necessarily self-identify as doing work on leadership. We decided to assess the nature of what we knew and also wanted to see to what extent phenomena were just labeled differently across the disciplines: for example, transformational leadership versus transactional leadership. We also wondered to what extent there were different insights depending on the unit of analysis with which one began.

We knew it was essential to also invite people who were reflective, thoughtful practitioners in the tradition of Andy Grove or Alfred P. Sloan, who not only were interested in leadership by virtue of having practiced it, but also had the ability to step back from everyday responsibilities of the firm and to think about leadership conceptually and developmentally.

Q: Pop psychology books about leadership can be found everywhere. Are thoughtful, serious studies gaining ground?
The developments are stunning. I wouldn't want to say that our conference caused these trends, but if you now pick up leading journals such as the American Journal of Sociology or Administrative Science Quarterly, the word leadership is increasingly common in the titles of papers. Even more importantly, we are seeing a growth industry of serious scholars writing books about leadership. Once a subject becomes legitimated, it becomes safer for other people to study it. And when leading scholars write papers and contribute over time, graduate students and younger faculty may begin to migrate to this research area.

Earlier trends in academia toward quantification and hypothesis testing may partially explain why leadership studies fell out of favor in recent decades. Leadership just wasn't tractable by large databases. It is now apparent that scholars need a variety of methods, including participant observation and detailed field research, to appreciate these phenomena. No single method would be useful. Some of the tools and methods used in microsociology or even the humanities, such as history, can be brought to bear.

Leadership studies are also gaining ground because we're experiencing a contextual change. Given the profound challenges we face as a global society and the challenges we confront as an institution, it's not just that we don't have solutions: We increasingly see that these problems are not solved because of failure in leadership, be it leadership in business or politics. This changing context may have spurred an interest in, and help legitimate, the study of leadership.

Q: What key learnings can managers and executives take away from your book?
Leadership is based on complex phenomena. The Handbook of Leadership Theory and Practice does not offer a set of simple prescriptions such as "here's the leadership style of Genghis Khan; it works in all situations under all conditions." Our chapters look at which elements of leadership are contingent on a situation versus those that may tend to be universal. There is no single "best" style of leadership nor one set of attributes in all situations. We look at the sources of constraints and at leadership as a sense of identity: Leaders do not require a formal position; rather, leadership is how one experiences oneself and how others experience us as individuals.

Thoughtful practitioners will find the sophisticated level of discussion in the book refreshing in contrast to the one-size-fits-all models that you might pick up at the airport. Leadership has to be understood through a variety of perspectives: impact, theory, variability; leadership in practice; and leadership development.

Q: What are you working on next?
Related to the study of leadership, the Dean and the HBS Division of Research generously funded two subsequent colloquia. Last year, we convened "How Can Leadership Be Taught," and we're preparing to publish those papers for a volume devoted to that topic, a Part Two to accompany the Handbook. This June, we're convening a conference titled Imagining the Future of Leadership to address the kinds of skills, knowledge, and identity that will be needed to be effective in the future.

For this third conference we're using Web 2.0 technology; accompanying essays, debates, and discussion have started on the Harvard Business Review Web site. In many ways, the conference is just going to be the midpoint of the conversation that has already started. So look out for that in May through June.

Excerpt from the Handbook of Leadership Theory and Practice

"Unlocking the Slices of Genius in Your Organization: The Future Research Agenda" by Linda A. Hill, Maurizio Travaglini, Greg Brandeau, and Emily Stecker:

mg_34482_leadership_handbook_280x210.jpgWe actually know a great deal about the innovation process, especially if we read beyond the disciplines most often found in business schools. We have proposed that innovation in organizations be conceived of as a process of co-design: creative abrasion, creative agility, and integrated problem solving. We know much about the kind of contextual factors that foster the three collaborative processes. Much of the research on leadership for innovation is macro in its orientation, focusing on the organizations factors that impact innovation and spelling out the implications for best practice.78  There is comparatively little research on leadership for innovation that looks at micro-level phenomena. Hence our research questions: (1) how leaders of innovation think, (2) what they do, (3) how they do it, and (4) who they are and how they got to be that way.

In terms of management theorists, we found Mary Parker Follett's work especially enlightening for our areas of inquiry. As Rosabeth Moss Kanter discussed in a preface to a collection of Follett's works, Follett was way ahead of her time.79 She was admittedly a utopian and romantic, but she had a profound appreciation for human relations and was one of the earliest systems thinkers. She saw all people as equals and would understand the notion that everyone has a slice of genius. The power of the dialectic of individual and collective identity resonated with Follett; consider her words: "We find the true man only through group organization. The potentialities of an individual remain potentialities until they are released by group life."80 Moreover, she sang the virtues of difference and conflict in organizational life. In the 1920s she was encouraging leaders to replace bureaucracy with empowered group networks with a common purpose. […]


Now, with the premium being placed on innovation as a key differentiator and source of competitive advantage, it is time we all reread her work. In the same vein, we recommend the work of urban planners.82 It is not surprising that the ideas of Horst Rittel, an eminent urban planner and designer, are very much in vogue. Rittel found that traditional planning and problem-solving methods were inadequate for the ill-structured problems he encountered in city planning. Like Follett he often found himself working on what he termed "wicked problems," problems that, among other things, cannot really be understood until they are solved.83 Rittel invented what he described as a "structure for rational discourse":

With wicked problems, the determination of solution quality is not objective and cannot be derived from following a formula. Solutions are assessed in a social context in which "many parties are equally equipped, interested, and/or entitled to judge [them] and these judgments are likely to vary widely and depend on the stakeholders' independent values and goals."84 […]

It is with some frustration that we have not had much to say about how effective leaders of innovation do what they do. As many leaders have told us, this is knowledge they crave. They know what to do; they just do not know how to do it. We need more research on implementation, especially empirical work that examines effective leaders of innovation in action and in context. In particular, we would argue for comparative field study work so that a collection of "teaching parables" can be produced. In this regard, we suggest not only more action research but also the use of social science portraiture, a genre of inquiry and representation that joins science and art. Sara Lawrence-Lightfoot has articulated the virtues and complexities of this method:

      Portraiture is a method of qualitative research that blurs the boundaries of aesthetics and empiricism in an effort to capture the complexity, dynamics, and subtlety of human experience and organizational life. Portraitists seek to record and interpret the perspectives and experiences of the people they are studying, documenting their voices and their visions—their authority, knowledge and wisdom. The drawing of the portrait is placed in social and cultural context and shaped through dialogue between the portraitist and the subject, each one negotiating the discourse and shaping the evolving image. The relationship between the two is rich with meaning and resonance and becomes the arena for navigating the empirical, aesthetic, and ethical dimensions of authentic and compelling narrative.85

To our minds, portraiture is a perfect vehicle for expert leaders of innovation to share their slices of genius with each other. It represents a tool for co-design between academics and those in practice. The academic's task would be to harness leaders' varied experiences to create an action theory of leadership better suited to our times.

As we embark on this endeavor, we would advocate the adoption of a global view. Too much of leadership research is conducted in the United States or western Europe. This is despite the reality that some of the most disruptive leadership practices and new business models are coming out of the emerging markets, as they abandon labor arbitrage and begin to move up the value chain. Established enterprises in the developed economies are discovering with some chagrin that their most formidable competitors are coming from the BRICs.86 One of our U.S. leaders has developed an innovative response to his competitors in the emerging economies. In an effort to build community around a worthy cause and to develop leaders capable of co-design, he has sought volunteers (people in the company willing to work on their own time) to come together and start up profitable business lines in the so-called bottom of the pyramid markets. The teams have set specific profitability and poverty eradication targets. [The late] C.K. Prahalad has noted that some of the most breakthrough business strategies, models, processes, and ways of organizing have come from teams building profitable businesses directed at those economically less fortunate.87 This leader is tapping into employees' passion—and creative a fertile context for innovation. And in so doing, he is creating a world to which people want to belong.


78. For work that is macro in scope, see, for example, James I. Cash, Michael J. Earl, and Robert Morison, "Teaming Up to Crack Innovation and Enterprise Innovation," Harvard Business Review 86, no. 11 (November 2008) […].

79. Kanter wrote about utopias herself. See Rosabeth Moss Kanter, "Commitment and Social Organizations: A Study of Commitment Mechanisms in Utopian Communities," American Sociological Review 33, no. 4 (1968): 499-517.

80. Pauline Graham, "Mary Parker Follett (1868-1993): A Pioneering Life," in Mary Parker Follett, Prophet of Management: A Celebration of Writings from the 1920s, ed. Pauline Graham (Washington, DC: Beard Books, 2003), 89.

82. For a classic collection of readings on urban planning, see Richard LeGates and Frederic Stout, The City Reader (London: Routledge, 1996). […]

83. For this definition and more information on what Rittel defines as "wicked problems," see his work as discussed in Jeff Conklin, Dialogue Mapping: Building Shared Understanding of Wicked Problems (Hoboken, NJ: Wiley, 2005).

84. Conklin, Dialogue Mapping, 7.

85. Sara Lawrence-Lightfoot and Jessica Hoffman Davies, The Art and Science of Portraiture (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2002), xv.

86. BRIC is an acronym that stands for Brazil, Russia, India, and China. According to Goldman Sachs, these developing countries will play an increasingly important role in the global economy in the future.

87. See C.K. Prahalad, The Fortune at the Bottom of the Pyramid: Eradicating Poverty Through Profits (Philadelphia: Wharton School Publishing, 2004). It may also be useful to read Prahalad and Krishnan, The New Age of Innovation.

[This article was provided with permission from Harvard Business School Working Knowledge.]

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