Sunday, February 06, 2005

Theoretical Frames of Organizational Leadership: It’s not about the leader

A paper written for “Leadership to Shape the Future: Theory, Research, and Practice” (Leadership 8510).

In my work as a performance consultant with the United States Coast Guard, I visit a number of senior leader’s offices on a regular basis. I also visit with middle managers, or up-and-coming leaders, in their offices. The books on the shelves of these offices always suggests to me Coast Guard leaders are reading the same books. I find Kaplan & Norton (1996), Covey (1989), Collins (2001), Buckingham & Coffman (1999), and Phillips (2003) make regular appearances. No doubt, the Commandant’s Reading List (U.S. Coast Guard, 2003), a list of recommended books, drives part of the similarity. Sometimes I suspect these books line the shelves of Coast Guard personnel merely because the books look good. Other times, my conversations with these individuals lead me to believe they are actually reading these books. Why is this important? In part it is important because a common definition of leadership, and a common language of leadership, helps an organization grow and develop; it is important because a common language of leadership, and common positive leadership practices, helps grow and develop the people in the organization. Leadership is not so much about the leader as it is about the led. Good leaders don’t call attention to themselves; good leaders call attention to those around them.

A Working Definition of Leadership

In one sense, leadership is one of those things “we know when we see it.” For some of us, it is a warm and fuzzy notion that is difficult to define. Gladwell (2005) suggests most of us “associate leadership ability with physical stature. We have a sense of what a leader is supposed to look like.” (p. 88) This sounds a bit fuzzy. Other writers are not so fuzzy. A number of academics and business pundits have helped define leadership; they’ve taken the subjectiveness out of our notion of leadership. Yukl (2002) defines leadership as “the process of influencing others to understand and agree about what needs to be done and how it can be done effectively, and the process of individual and collective efforts to accomplish the shared objectives.” (p. 7) For Kouzes & Posner (2002), leadership is not so much about personality as it is about practice. They write, “Leadership is an identifiable set of skills and practices that are available to all of us… leadership is a relationship between those who aspire to lead and those who choose to follow.” (p. 20) Bennis and Goldsmith suggest leadership is generating “shared values, goals, visions, or objectives” (p. 3) and then creating a situation whereby the followers can accomplish those goals and create the defined future. My own personal definition of leadership combines the Coast Guard’s basic definition of leadership – getting subordinates to do what you want them to do – with Covey’s (1989) definition of effectiveness – the balance between “production of desired results” and “production capability, or the ability or asset that produces.” (p. 54) My definition is “getting someone to do something, something they might not want to do, in a way in which you can get them to do it over and over again.” Covey (2004) defines leadership as “communicating to people their worth and potential so clearly that they come to see it in themselves.” (p. 98)

Most of these definitions have a common core: getting people to see a shared vision and getting them to work toward that shared vision. The definitions do not rely on a formal organization. That is to say that leadership does not occur just within organized groups. But not all organizations are formal or “organized.” Covey (2004) suggests “an organization is made up of individuals who have a relationship and a shared purpose” and may be as simple as “a simple business partnership or a marriage.” (p. 99) Further, he suggests leadership is not a “formal position,” but “rather a choice to deal with people in a way that will communicate to them their worth and potential so clearly they come to see it in themselves.” (p. 99) For Covey, the leadership challenge is to set up organizations – including families – “in a way that enables each person to inwardly sense his or her innate worth and potential for greatness and to contribute his or her unique talents and passion … to accomplish the organization’s purpose and highest priorities.” (p. 99) While at first blush, Covey appears to just have the leader suss out the other person’s worth and potential; in truth, he asks that the worth and potential be committed to a shared vision. We have moved beyond Gladwell’s (2005) fuzzy notion.

“Self Evident” Notions on Leadership

In truth, however, Gladwell (2005) is not that far off the mark: we know leadership when we see it. This is, perhaps, the fundamental self-evident truth about leadership. While Gladwell builds a case that sometimes we can be taken-in and fooled, this doesn’t happen always. Gladwell uses leadership and Warren Harding as a key example; Harding looked the part. He was not presidential, however, and is often ranked as one of the worst American presidents ever. Certainly, sometimes we can be taken-in and deceived – as McIntosh & Rima (1997) and The Arbinger Institute (2002) note – but, more often than not, Gladwell’s “thin slicing” takes place. Gladwell suggests thin slicing is “the ability of our unconscious to find patterns in situations and behavior based on very narrow slices of experience” and, from those patterns to make “rapid cognition” and “sophisticated judgments.” (p. 23) For the most part, we are able to thin slice: we know leadership, and we know leadership when we see it. Much of “knowing it when we see it” is, I believe, based on a view of practices, practices which for most of us are not clearly defined. In the passageways of Coast Guard cutters and halls of Coast Guard offices, I often hear rumblings of “walk the talk” (or more likely “not walking the talk”) or taking care of subordinates (or often not taking care of subordinates and being concerned only for self). Kouzes & Posner’s (2002) five practices seem to nail most of what for many of us are known but somewhat unclear. Kouzes and Posner list the five leadership practices as “modeling the way, inspiring a shared vision, challenging the process, enabling others to act, and encouraging the heart.” (p. 22) When we “thin slice,” we are, I believe, making judgments and assessments on these, defined, basic practices.

Is a Theory of Leadership Necessary?

While we are able to “thin slice” when we see a leader or a person practicing leadership processes, some people are able to “thin slice” the act of leadership. That is to say, some leaders just seem to know how to “do it.’ And, they may not even be able to put to words what they do or why they do it. For the rest of us, however, thinking about leadership and having a theory of leadership is necessary. Bennis & Goldsmith (2003) believe all of us “are capable of becoming effective leaders. The challenge is to confront the barriers that stand in the way of our becoming better leaders.” (p. xiv) If each of us is capable of becoming an effective leader, and not all of us are born effective leaders, we need, as Bennis & Goldsmith propose, to assess our character and become accomplished at certain core competencies. We assess our character so that we are doing what we do for the right reason; we grow our competencies so we can do the right thing.

We need a theory of leadership so we can grow into the role. We also need a theory of leadership so we can grow those around us. Without a consistent theory of leadership, without a shared paradigm, one person’s leadership will stop with their departure from the organization. Leadership will die on the vine. Organizations define leadership and the competencies required for leadership. (See, for example, U. S. Coast Guard, 2004). But they do more than define; organizations teach people within the organization. The Arbinger Institute (2002) tells the tale of the Zagrum Company and a long-standing, senior management ritual: a day-long meeting with a particular senior vice president where leadership insights are shared and taught. And part of Zagrum’s process is this ritual which has been passed down and is kept alive even though the original leader has been long gone. To be an effective leader, the leader must create systems which will carry on after she is gone.

Leadership and Management: People and Things

The maintenance of these systems is, oddly, a function of management. Years ago, I thought leadership was “better” than management. Now, only slightly wiser, I know both are needed within an organization. Leadership is about people; management is about things, process, and systems. Bennis & Goldsmith (2003) suggest management is about “efficiency” and leadership is about “effectiveness.” (p. 8) Covey (1989) echoes this when he states, “You think effectiveness with people and efficiency with things.” (p. 169-170) Covey (2004) – drawing on 12 leadership theorists including Bennis, Gardner, Kouzes & Posner, Drucker, and Peters – notes leadership is about people, management is about things; leadership is about principles, management is about technique; leadership is about transformation, management is about transaction; it is doing the right things versus doing things right; and it’s working on the systems (for the leader) and working in the systems (for the manager).

In order for effective leadership to survive within an organization – whether it is a complex and large organization like the Coast Guard, a small business, a religious organization such as a parish church, or a family – good leadership must be taught to each successive generation. Creating that system is a function of leadership; continuing that system is a function of management. We need both.

Rational and Emotional Aspects of Leadership

As both management and leadership are needed within organizations, so also are rational and emotional aspects needed within leadership. If we look to Kouzes & Posner’s (2002) five practices and the associated ten commitments (p. 22), we see both the rational and emotional components of an individual are challenged. The ten commitments are behaviors, and within them are both behaviors fundamentally founded on rational behavior and behaviors fundamentally founded on emotional behavior. For instance, the fourth commitment is to “enlist others in a common vision by appealing to shared aspirations.” (p. 141ff) This commitment is built on various actions, actions which swing to both sides of the rational/emotional spectrum. Kouzes & Posner tell us to “find the common ground” (p. 181), a process which is more rational than emotional. And they also tell us to “breathe life into your vision” (p. 185) and “speak from the heart” (p. 186), two actions which are more emotional than rational.

What we see here is an understanding that leadership is about people; it is about relationships. Relationships exist between people, and they are fundamentally both rational and emotional. A relationship that is solely one or the other is doomed to fail, or worse, explode. Effective leadership hinges on both the emotional and the rational, on both the right side and the left side of the brain. When Dr. King spoke on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial more than 40 years ago, he painted a word picture that presented in no uncertain terms a common vision for all Americans. (King, 1963) It was, and remains today, a heartfelt call. But Dr. King did more than evoke an emotional response; Dr. King used his words to paint a clear, rational picture. And he did it in a studied manner, built upon more than 15 years of preaching in front of gatherings, large and small.

The Learning of Leadership: Art or Science?

For King, I imagine that preaching, which is really what he was doing that hot August day in Washington, was both an art and a science. For most of us, when we refer to “art” in this sense, we mean it is something which is, while perhaps “learned,” is something for which we have an innate talent. A “science,” while we might have a talent for it, is something which is learned. Art happens; science is planned. Art comes from the heart; science comes from the head. Leadership, like King’s preaching, is both an art and a science.

While, as noted earlier, some people just “have it” where leadership is concerned, others of us don’t have it. But, as Bennis & Goldsmith (2003), Covey (2004), Hacker & Wilson (1999), and the contributors to Bennis, Spreitzer, & Cummings (2001) all suggest, leadership can be learned. What each of these authors suggests is that leadership can be learned through a process. For each of them, the process invariably involves learning about self before moving forward. While their processes are different, each involves introspection, a determination of one’s own mission and vision, and a clarification of one’s own values and preferences. We see this even in the Coast Guard’s (2004) own leadership competencies. “Leading Self” is the building-block category; all else builds on the competencies of accountability & responsibility, followership, self-awareness & learning, aligning values, health & well-being, personal conduct, and technical proficiency. (pp. 2-3) These are the competencies of “leading self.” These competencies are consistent with the leading authorities’ processes for learning leadership.

Through the process of learning about one’s self and aligning personal mission with organizational vision, the leader becomes a person of character, a trait fundamental to the work of Bennis & Goldsmith (2003) and Covey (1989). Character, as defined by Covey, is based on three things. Integrity, or “making and keeping meaningful promises and commitments” (p. 217), is at the core. Next is “maturity,” which Covey defines as the balance between the courage to stand up for self and the consideration one has of others. (p. 217) The final building block of character is what Covey calls “the abundance mentality” or the belief “that there is plenty out there for everybody.” (p. 219) Integrity, maturity, and the abundance mentality can only come through substantial self-knowledge and self-understanding. Leaders must know themselves.

A strong key, however, is that leadership is not about the leader. Certainly, a leader must know one’s self, but leadership is about the shared vision, the shared goal, the shared mission of the members of the organization, be it a formal organization or an informal, ad-hoc organization. Leadership is not about greatness, in the sense that greatness is ego and self; leadership is servant-based. Greatness, as Dr. King once suggested, is about being a servant to others. Gardner, Csikszentmihayli, & Damon (2001) suggest that excellence really only takes place when high ethical standards are met; excellence in leadership is not about being “selfish and ambitious,” but rather about being concerned with the common good. (p. viii) They propose three foundations to bring about excellence: development of the individual, which they distinguish along two routes: competence and character; democratic processes; and education as key. (pp. 242-247) Even with Gardner, Csikszentmihayli, & Damon, the outward look becomes foundational. This is the link between greatness and servant-attitude that King was referring to. And, it reflects the link between leadership and a servant-attitude. Again, leadership is not about the leader; it is about those who follow the leader.

While leadership might be innate and developed through some Gladwell-ian “thin slicing” process, for most of us, a combination of art and science tends to build good leadership. And within the art of leadership, and within the science of leadership, good leaders know themselves, but focus on those around them.

A Leadership Self Analysis

I struggle on a daily basis to be a good leader. My own sense of self is bound up in my mission statement, which I’ve developed and honed and trimmed and dreamt about for more than a decade. In the last year or two my mission has become trimmed and more focused: I am a servant leader in my family, community, and work. For me, these words serve as a guidepost, encapsulating my key values – though unstated – and demonstrating an external focus based on relationships. Within each of the three broad areas – family, community, and work – I have defined a set of roles; for each role, I have defined desired outcomes or activities. My family roles of father, husband, son, and self come first. They are first both because they are most critical to my ultimate being, but also I have placed them first because they are, for some reason, the first to be pushed aside when work and community rear their heads. My work roles of performance excellence coach & facilitator, leadership coach, innovation champion, civil rights counselor, senior reservist, and search & rescue expert come next. And, lastly, my community roles as student, writer, crisis intervener, conflict mediator, vestry member, and stewardship chair bring up the bottom of the list. For each role, I have defined one or more goal objectives or focus goals, things I want to complete or things on which I want to focus.

From these goals, it is not surprising to learn that according to the Myers Briggs Type Indicator, I am an INFP. As Kroeger & Thuesen (1988) note, INFP’s are idealists, “performing noble service to aid society.” (p. 238) As an intuitive feeler, I “look at the world and see possibilities” and then “translate those possibilities inter- and intra-personally” serving causes that “advance human interests.” (p. 52) Kroeger & Thuesen (2002) note that INFP’s blend “productivity with compassion for the workforce.” (p. 341) They also note an INFP “usually assumes leadership positions in an effort to merge his vision with some sense of accomplishment. When this happens, the INFP male will be a highly inspirational leader, though routine details can be a bore and lead to his undoing.” (p. 342) Truer words were perhaps never spoken. Aside from the routine details which have been known to bring me down, so too have violations of my own values by co-workers and superiors. Kroeger & Thuesen (1988) note, “INFPs have their own self-imposed ‘codes’ for life, and while they have little to share or impose them on others… when others do trample on INFPs’ codes, INFPs can become demanding and extremely aggressive.” (p. 239) Offend an INFP’s value system, and forgiveness may never come. (Kroeger & Thuesen, 2002, p. 341)

Some people would say that I have mellowed over the years. Perhaps. I prefer to think that I have become more mature, as Covey (1989) would define it: I have found a balance between courage and consideration. My own values have not changed all that much over the years; they have become, perhaps, more well-defined, sharper around the edges, more focused on self and the community of life within which I live. What I have found is that as I get older, I find it more difficult to live up to the standards I have set for myself. My transgressions seem bigger, at least in my own mind.


And it is in the mind where the journey to leadership starts. When an individual decides to exercise the leadership muscles, they start with an inward, introspective journey, matching their values and goals to those of the organizations within which they work. Through concerted effort, and a defined process, we can develop and exercise effective leadership. While the experts don’t necessarily buy into the exact same model, their writings indicate a consistency: start with the self; learn about self. In my own journey to leadership, I continue to struggle to know myself, and I continue to struggle to put my talents and skills to use being a servant leader to those who choose to follow.


Arbinger Institute. (2002). Leadership and Self-Deception: Getting out of the box. San Francisco: Berrett-Koehler Publishers, Inc.

Bennis, W. & Goldsmith, J. (2003). Learning to Lead: A workbook on becoming a leader (3rd ed.). New York: Basic Books.

Bennis, W., Spreitzer, G. M., & Cummings, T. G. (Eds.). (2001). The Future of Leadership: Today’s top leadership thinkers speak to tomorrow’s leaders. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Buckingham M. & Coffman C. (1999). First, Break All the Rules: What the world’s greatest managers do differently. New York: Simon & Schuster.

Collins, J. (2001). Good to Great: Why some companies make the leap... and others don't. New York: Harper Collins Publishers.

Covey, S. R. (1989). The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People: Restoring the character ethic. New York: Free Press.

Covey, S. R. (2004). The 8th Habit: From effectiveness to greatness. New York: Free Press.

Gardner, H., Csikszentmihayli, M. & Damon, W. (2001). Good Work: When excellence and ethics meet. New York: Basic Books.

Gladwell, M. (2005). Blink: The power of thinking without thinking. New York: Little, Brown and Company.

Hacker, S. K. & Wilson, M. C. (with Johnson, C. S.). (1999). Work Miracles: Transform yourself and your organization. Blacksburg, VA: Insight Press.

Kaplan, R. S. & Norton, D. P. (1996). The Balanced Scorecard: Translating strategy into action. Boston: Harvard Business School Press.

King, M. L., Jr. (August 28, 1963). I have a dream. Retrieved February 4, 2005, from website.

Kouzes, J. M. & Posner, B. Z. (2002). The Leadership Challenge (3rd ed.). San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Kroeger, O. & Thuesen, J. M. (1988). Type Talk: The 16 personality types that determine how we live, love, and work (Rev.). New York: Tilden Press/Dell Publishing.

Kroeger, O. & Thuesen, J. M. (with Rutledge, H.) (2002). Type Talk at Work: How the 16 personality types determine your success on the job. New York: Tilden Press/Dell Publishing.

McIntosh, G. L. & Rima, S. D., Sr. (1997). Overcoming the Dark Side of Leadership: The paradox of personal dysfunction. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books.

Phillips, D. T. (with Loy, J. M.). (2003). Character in Action: The U.S. Coast Guard on leadership. Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press.

U.S. Coast Guard (2003). Commandant’s Reading List 2003-Present. Retrieved February 1, 2005, from website.

U.S. Coast Guard (2004). New U.S. Coast Guard Leadership Competencies. Retrieved February 1, 2005, from website.

Yukl, G. (2002). Leadership in Organizations (5th ed.). Upper Saddle Ridge, NJ: Prentice Hall, Inc.

1 comment:

Dr. Elizabeth C. Brennan said...

02/07/05 Hi, Peter. I have read and evaluated your first assignment for 8510, “Leadership Position Paper”. I used the rubric, found in the Course syllabus for this assignment, and evaluated it both systematically and holistically across the indicators provided there. I particularly focused on content and message and less on mechanicals, format and style than I will in papers to come. Overall, this paper is EXTREMELY well written, clear and accurate, thoughtful and informative. You made good use of “responsiveness” – meaning that you addressed the requirements in a concrete and direct manner, and, that you made the connections to the material reseaerched and your own personal practice. You paid good attention to the specific format as well as content requirements to yield a most interesting piece. I further appreciate your attention to the conventions and accuracy for writing. I am happy to report that it earned all 20/20 points. This assignment was surely a pleasure to read, and I look forward to your ED Impact Assignment next. Sincerely, Dr. Elizabeth C. Brennan