Lots of bark, little bite for top dogs


October 20, 2006

Leadership is a will-o'-the-wisp, impossible to pin down. Like creativity, it is easier to recognise than to define because it comes in all sorts of manifestations and strengths. Just as individuals can be moderately creative in countless ways, they can be moderately good at leading in some situations but not in others. The military talks, somewhat vaguely, about individuals having "leadership qualities" - because every officer must be able to lead his men, without necessarily being a great leader. Indeed, it is arguable that just as every person has some creativity in them, every person has at least a smidgen of leadership in them - able to lead their children, or their friends, but not a great organisation or a nation.

Given such a nebulous subject, it was brave - not to say foolhardy - of Sage Publications to launch an academic quarterly called simply Leadership . Not that there is any dearth of academic writing on the subject. On the contrary, there is a superfluity - and that is the problem.

The very nebulousness of leadership seems to lead many academics, and others, to write incessantly about it. Andrew DuBrin has estimated that there are 35,000 definitions of leadership in academic literature. And, since 2002, when Patricia Hewitt, at the Department of Trade and Industry, announced that UK management performs poorly because it lacks leaders, the previous stream of published material about leadership has turned into a torrent.

Doubtless it was this flood that convinced Sage of the need for this publication. But if an academic journal is to succeed it must frequently break new ground by publishing revelatory and important new material. Indeed "the advancement of the field of leadership studies" is an objective the Leadership editors set themselves in their first issue. On that criterion, the journal, which launched last year, has so far been only a partial success.

Perhaps this is a direct result of the abundance of material extant. People have been thinking and writing about leadership since the Bible, ancient Athens and Lao Tzu, if not earlier. So maybe a new journal feels constrained to clear the decks before pressing on. But I suspect the problem is that the subject is already so clogged up with definitions and theories that it is immensely difficult to say anything truly original.

Five years ago, John van Maurik published his comprehensive appraisal Writers on Leadership , and I saw no significant theoretical approaches in Leadership that van Maurik did not cover. Indeed, several of the writers in Leadership themselves grumble about how discouraging it is that the oodles that have been written, and continue to be written, result in precious little progress.

For these reasons, the articles devoted to case histories rather than theory - detailed analyses of particular leaders and leadership situations - are far more satisfactory than those covering, for example, yet another uncharismatic dissertation on what charisma is or is not.

Among others, Frank Blackler's piece on the problems of leadership in the National Health Service provides excellent insights into that great unwieldy institution; Tobias Van Assche's paper on the personal leadership role of Jacques Delors in the creation of the European Monetary Union is similarly enlightening; and the paper by Mats Sundgren and Alexander Styhre on leadership in pharmaceutical companies is also revealing, despite its pretentious and unnecessary title "Leadership as de-paradoxification".

Inevitably, an academic journal must blend abstract and theoretical papers with empirical and factual papers. But, because the concept of leadership is so fuzzy and carries so much baggage, Leadership would do better to minimise the quasi-philosophical stuff and maximise the real-life examples - instead of the opposite, which seems to be its present policy.

Winston Fletcher is chairman, The Royal Institution.


Editor - David Collinson and Keith Grint
Publisher - Sage, Published quarterly
Price - Institutions £335.00 Individuals £55.00
ISSN - 1742 7150

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