Guidelines to Understand Literature
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”
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
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
Related Library Topics
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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
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.
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
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.
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
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?
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
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).
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.
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?
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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