The study of leadership can be quite complex, immense, and intimidating. Many experts, authors, and teachers research and study leadership in an effort to describe or prescribe an effective model; but a “review of the scholarly studies on leadership shows that there is a wide variety of different theoretical approaches to explain the complexities of the leadership process.” (Northouse, 2013, p. 1) Even more challenging, at times these various leadership theories seem to be in conflict with one another, and so, as Thomas Cronin says in Wren’s The Leader’s Companion, “virtually anything that can be said about leadership can be denied or disproven.” (1995, p. 30) People then will often believe that leadership is relegated only to those who know everything about the subject or to those few people whom they feel have inherent “greatness.”
However, while good leadership does have good leadership theory as its basis, much of what makes a leader effective is in the practice of leadership, and much of what is effective in practice can be seen by doing things that make sense. In fact, studies validate that leaders, organizations, and followers are more effective when they identify practical actions that make sense, and implement those actions. That is why Jim Collins says, in Great by Choice, “Social psychology research indicates that . . .10Xers [leaders who built enterprises that beat industry averages by at least 10 times] do not look to conventional wisdom to set their course during times of uncertainty, nor do they primarily look to what other people do, or to what pundits and experts say they should do. They look primarily to empirical evidence.” (Collins & Hansen, p. 25). Edgar Schein adds, in Organizational Culture and Leadership, that this “is the basic reason why sociologists who study how work is actually done in organizations always find sufficient variations from the formally designated procedures to talk of the ‘informal organization’ and to point out that without such innovative behavior on the part of the employees, the organization might not be as effective.” (2010, p. 60) In other words, people look around to see what makes sense and what actually works, and that is what they do.
When John Kotter, in Leading Change, talks about determining vision, he says that “all effective visions seem to be grounded in sensible values as well as analytically sound thinking, and the values have to be ones that resonate.” (2012, p. 84) A good leader knows the culture in his organization and environment, and can identify the things that make sense, and that make sense in his specific culture. Those things are the principles and practices that have reason behind them (leadership theory), but that resonate within the context of that culture and make practical sense (leadership practice).
So what does this mean for leaders? It means that there is a good deal of common sense involved in effective leadership. Don’t let the myriad of authors, experts, and theories confuse or discourage you. Instead, remember that most often, decisions based upon empirical validation are the ones that work. Look for what you can see works – what makes sense – and look for why it specifically works in your organizational culture, and you will be much closer to effective leadership than you realize.
Collins, J., & Hansen, M. T. (2011). Great by Choice: Uncertainty, Chaos, and Luck – Why Some Thrive Despite Them All. New York, NY: Harper Collins Publishers.
Kotter, J. P. (2012). Leading change. Boston: Harvard Business School Press.
Northouse, P. G. (2013). Leadership: Theory and practice (6th ed.). Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE Publications.
Schein, E. H. (2010). Organizational Culture and Leadership (4th Edition ed.). San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.
Wren, J. T. (1995). The leader’s companion: insights on leadership through the ages. New York: Free Press.