Guidelines to Understand Literature About Leadership

Sections of this topic

    Guidelines to Understand Literature
    About Leadership

    © Copyright Carter McNamara, MBA, PhD, Authenticity Consulting, LLC.

    There is a recent explosion of literature about leadership. The literature
    offers a great deal of advice from many different perspectives, which can be
    quite confusing to readers. (After years of reading leadership literature, I’ve
    begun to notice that, despite the seemingly different perspectives, many writers
    are actually asserting very similar points of view.)

    The guidelines in this article help the reader to get the most
    out of leadership literature by helping them to closely examine
    the various points of view and suggestions from writers. This
    article is referenced from the topic Leadership
    (an Introduction)
    in the Free
    Management Library
    . and
    are referenced at the end of this article.

    Sections of This Topic Include

    Potential for Confusion Among
    Readers of Leadership Literature

    “Leading”: A Basic Definition
    as a Starting Point

    Where the Confusion Often Starts:
    Traits Versus Roles

    Writers Have Varying Views on “Leading”
    and “Managing”

    Writers Have Varying Views on Universal
    Versus Relative Perspectives of Leadership

    Writers Might Interchange Terms “Managing”
    and “Management” in Same Article

    Writers Might Vary Modes of Time in
    Same Article

    Writers Might Mix Reference to Traits
    and Roles in Same Article

    Writers Sometimes Vary Scope of the
    Term “Leader” in Same Article

    Is Sometimes Difficult to Glean Clear
    Message About Good Leadership

    Is Sometimes Difficult to Glean Consistent
    Message About Good Leadership

    Suggestions to Completely Understand
    Literature About Leadership

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    Related Library Topics

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    Library’s Leadership

    About Potential
    Confusion Among Readers of Leadership Literature

    Readers sometimes become confused while reading literature about
    leadership in businesses. This confusion happens for a variety
    of reasons, none of them are any one’s fault. However, there are
    some guidelines that might help the reader to avoid confusion
    and get the most out of this literature.

    We live and work in a fascinating, yet fearful time. Increased
    competition is forcing organizations to implement customer-driven
    policies where industry-driven strategies worked before. To be
    more adaptable, organizations are decentralizing. Organizations
    are transforming, reinventing and reengineering. As a result,
    there is often a great deal of pain in organizations.

    There is an increasing number of practitioners, educators and
    writers who are trying to help. Each person feels strongly about
    his or her advice. Among those trying to help are a wide variety
    of suggestions and a wide variety of views. This situation can
    cause a great deal of confusion, particularly in readers who are
    new to reading about the concept of leadership.

    After 20 years of reading literature about leadership (including
    intensive focus during doctoral studies), I’ve gleaned several
    insights that I share below. By no means do I intend to disparage
    writers in the following (I am a writer, too!). I sincerely believe
    that each writer is attempting to help leaders in organizations.
    I offer the following guidelines in the hope that readers and
    writers alike will get the most out of leadership literature in
    the future.

    First, let’s look at some causes for potential confusion among
    readers. Then we’ll review some basic guidelines that hopefully
    will avoid confusion in the future.

    Offering a Definition as a Starting Point

    At a minimum, “Leading” is
    influencing someone in some way. Most people will agree on at
    least this much of some ideal definition for the term. There are
    numerous, additional facets to this assertion that could be explored,
    but this simple definition may be enough to go forward in this
    article for now.

    Where the
    Confusion Often Starts: Traits Versus Roles

    A “leader” is someone who is
    leading — maybe. Some writers use the term “leader”
    as based on the formal role in an organization (“He is a
    leader, that is, he’s the CEO”.) Other writers refer to a
    “leader” as someone who is showing traits of leading
    (“He is the group leader for now, that is, he’s showing us
    where to go”.) However, many writers would disagree that
    a CEO is always a leader. For example, if an organization is floundering
    badly with little or no direction, maybe the CEO (a formal leader
    by nature of his top-level role) is not effectively leading the
    organization (that is, showing the traits of leading) and, therefore,
    is truly not a leader. It depends on one’s use of the word “leader”.

    Most would agree that the term “Leadership
    refers to the ability to lead. Many writers use the term “leadership”
    to refer to a person who show traits of leading (“He’s shows
    strong leadership”). However, many writers also use the term
    to refer to the executive level of an organization (“The
    leadership decided we’re downsizing”.)

    Have Varying Views on “Leading” and “Managing”

    Traditionally (although many would now disagree), the
    term “management” is described as the functions of planning,
    organizing, leading and controlling (or coordinating) activities
    in an organization. “Managing” is explained as carrying
    out these activities. Courses in management often teach from this
    perspective. Some writers follow this view and believe that the
    activity of leading is but one aspect of management. Other writers
    disagree and assert that “managing” is planning, organizing
    and controlling and that “leading” is a distinctly separate
    activity that primarily involves influencing people. An old adage
    that follows from this latter view is “Leaders do the right
    things. Managers do things right”. Another adage is “Leaders
    lead people, managers manage things”. Other writers would
    even disagree with this view, however. They would assert that,
    although a person happens to be carrying out activities that influence
    others, if he or she does not hold a formal role in the organization
    with the title of “manager”, then he or she is not a

    Writers Have
    Varying Views on Universal Versus Relative Perspectives on Leadership

    Some writers believe that there are universal principles
    and styles of leadership that should be consistent no matter the
    situation faced by the leader. These writers may assert, e.g.,
    that an executive should retain a highly humanistic and participative
    style, whether a CEO in a hospital or a field general in a war.
    Other writers believe that the nature of leadership depends to
    a great extent on the situation. They might assert that a general
    exhibit a highly autocratic style, while a CEO should be highly
    humanistic and participative in a hospital.

    Some Writers
    Might Interchange Terms “Managing” and “Management”

    Occasionally, an article (often when comparing leading
    to managing) will assert that “leading” is different
    than “managing”, and later mention that “leading”
    is different than “management”. This can be particularly
    confusing for people who believe that a) leading is different
    than managing (which they believe to be organizing, planning and
    controlling), but that leading and managing together are management

    Some Writers
    Might Vary Modes of Time in Same Article

    For example, a writer might explain how a group member
    can be the an informal leader in a group even though that member
    does not have the formal role of leader. Typically, the writer
    describes that the group follows that the informal leader’s suggestions,
    listens to the informal leader more than other group members,
    etc. The writer may go on to assert that everyone throughout the
    organization needs to be a leader. However, at this point, it
    may not be clear if the writer is asserting that the person is
    a leader at that time — or always. Is the writer asserting that
    people throughout the organization should be leaders (by traits)
    always or sometimes depending on the situation?

    Some Writers
    Might Mix Reference to Traits and Roles

    In the above example where the writer is describing
    the informal leader in a group, the writer may continue to refer
    to the person throughout the rest of the article as “a leader”
    (no longer referring to the person’s traits that led the writer
    to conclude the person was the leader). The writer seems to have
    switched from asserting that a person is the leader at that time
    because of his or her traits to now be asserting that the person
    is the leader because the person is, well, “a leader”,
    that is, someone who will always be a leader (by trait) in any
    given situation.

    Along the same lines, some writers mention how important it
    is that everyone throughout the organization be a leader (by traits).
    Later, the writers will mention how important it is that the organization’s
    “leadership” (apparently now meaning the executive levels
    of the organization) take a strong role to ensure that everyone
    in the organization is a leader (by trait).

    Some Writers
    Vary Focus of the Term “Leader”

    Discussion about the question of “What makes a
    good leader?” has continued for decades, if not longer. Some
    people assert that a good leader (by trait) is someone who focuses
    on leading within a business to reach the business-specific goals
    of the business. A frequent counter to this assertion is “Well
    then was Hitler a good leader?” Others look at a leader (by
    trait) as someone who focuses on achieving vision, and always
    in a highly moral and socially conscious way.

    Is Sometimes
    Difficult to Glean Clear Message About Good Leadership

    All of the various suggestions about good leadership
    can sound very appealing, e.g., have clear vision, embrace change,
    lead from principles, be a servant to your people, cultivate community,
    focus on the future, etc. For various reasons, writers often don’t
    address how these suggestions can be implemented. In addition,
    many of us have different impressions of what these suggestions
    mean. At some point, these suggestions have to be translated to
    behaviors in the workplace. How does one know if they’re actually
    implementing the suggestions or not?

    Is Sometimes
    Difficult to Glean Consistent Message About Good Leadership

    Leading (whether leaders by traits or roles) is a very human activity.
    All of us are human. So most of us can offer a lot of advice about
    what a good leader should do. We want them to transform themselves
    and their organizations, while ensuring that all of us have jobs.
    We suggest that leaders build teams, yet focus on employees. They
    should cultivate clarity, yet embrace change and chaos.

    Meanwhile, of course, no matter how much a person believes
    that leading is separate from managing, every leader must operate
    within certain budget constraints. Executive-level leaders (by
    role) hear from board members and others in the organization that
    the top priority is strong fiscal management. The struggle to
    take risks while managing cash flow can be overwhelming. Consequently,
    it can become quite confusing for these leaders to glean a consistent
    message from all of the ongoing advice.

    to Get the Most Out of Leadership Literature

    The following guidelines are offered to help readers
    get the most from the advice offered by writers of leadership

    1. Come to your own conclusion about “What is ‘management’?
    Managing? Leading? Are they different? Does it matter?”

    Even if your conclusion is “There is no clear definition”
    or “It doesn’t matter”, at least your conclusion will
    give you a stable frame of reference from which to consider assertions
    of various writers.

    2. Attempt to identify if the writer is talking about
    traits of a leader, the role of a leader or both

    3 Attempt to identify if the writer is talking about
    whether someone is a leader for now, in the future or always

    4. Attempt to identify the writer’s scope of the term
    “leader”. Do they focus on someone as being a leader
    in the organization or also in society, etc?

    5. Attempt to glean any advice from the writer about how leaders can
    actually implement the values and principles suggested by the writer


    For the Category of Leadership:

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