A (Really) Brief History of Leadership Theory & Leadership Excellence
Leadership theory of some sort or another is ancient; as long as there have been people there have been leaders and ideas about what made them exceptional.
However, it is only recently that we have begun to examine leadership, and leadership excellence, in a systematic and scientific way.
One of the earliest theories, the “Great Man” theory, emphasized the role of a very small cadre of charismatic men in shaping history. This theory is largely ignored now, given its overlooking of great women as well as environmental factors.
By the middle of the 20th century, the preeminence of Behavioral Psychology gave rise to behavioral approaches to leadership as well. Behavioral approaches emphasize that certain behaviors are always desirable in a leader, such as determination and extroversion. This approach lost favor as further scrutiny revealed successful leadership to be highly context bound.
The behaviors that serve a leader well in some situations, may serve her very poorly in another milieu. Subsequent approaches have emphasized the importance of relationships and having a compelling mission, but while both are necessary, neither are sufficient to wholly encompass what should be looked for when selecting leaders.
A Holistic Approach to Leadership
Given the increasing complexity of the world in which we live, and the demands placed upon leaders, most modern theories of leadership are holistic in nature. Being the baseball fan that I am, I like to think of leadership in terms of five tools. Just as a five tool player can run, hit for power and average, field, and has a strong arm, a five tool leader is possessed of all that is required for holistic excellence.
The Five Tools of Leadership Excellence
Intelligence – Some estimates say that intelligence accounts for 25 percent of the variance between those that excel at their job and those that do not. Intelligence is especially crucial to consider when an executive must be brought up to speed and begin delivering quickly. Further, intelligence helps mask the appearance of other developmental weaknesses.
Emotional Intelligence (EQ) – Emotional intelligence was shown in a Harvard study to be twice as predictive of excellent performance as expertise. It is also positively correlated with participative management, putting others at ease, relationship building, doing whatever it takes to win, and managing change effectively. Those rated as having high EQ are more likely to lead profitable organizations.
Technical Skill – I commonly ask those that I’m interviewing what they value in a leader, and hear “technical skill” almost without exception. Having deep subject matter expertise helps leaders get buy-in from those with boots on the ground and decreases the problem of management being out of touch with the quotidian goings on of those they lead.
Leadership – Leadership is defined as the ability to influence people to work in service of a common goal. Therefore, leaders are those with a well-defined vision of where they are going and the skills necessary to persuade others to come along. Forget the myriad definitions of leadership you’ve heard over the years and strip leadership down to its’ bones – vision and influence.
Fit – The idea of one prototypical leader is as dead as the people who thought it up. Examine the needs of your organization and your team and determine how good a fit someone is against your actual needs, not some romanticized vision of what a leader looks like.
Because only by taking this more holistic approach to leadership excellence can we hope to truly achieve it. After all, we’ve evolved, and the old approaches are, quite literally, history. And those leaders, current and future, who forget the past are doomed to repeat it (or at least, face self-imposed obsolescence in the world of work).