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Face The Challenge - Sample Section, Chapter 2

Chapter Two - Theories and Myths

"Theories and Myths" explores the development of modern leadership theory, philosophy, and principles; and provides an effective pro and con assessment of these leadership characteristics, theory, and principles with their supporting rationale and strategy. It also examines and debunks the validity of a myriad of creative leadership assumptions and assessments, ineffective sacred cows, or philosophy characteristics that work to inhibit a Leader's creative supervisory outlook and which stifle his or her leadership skills, forward progress, or development.

 

 

2.1 Leadership Theories in General.  While a multitude of management consultants and academicians have spent a great deal of time discussing and analyzing what they consider to be paradigm shifts in the practice of leadership, it is highly doubtful that a new, definitive, or all-encompassing theory of leadership is close at hand.  Some of these notable pundits even go so far as to recommend casting aside current leadership models as being irrelevant in an increasingly more interdependent global economy or being wholly inadequate to meet the challenges presented by rapidly changing technology, advanced communications, or shifts in the sociopolitical environment; as though everything that has been learned about leadership or human behavior through the last hundred centuries is suddenly no longer relevant or applicable.  Similarly, certain leadership practices are simply considered to be out of vogue by other organizational savants, much in the same way that clothing styles change or computer programs are updated without significant benefit to the user.  With some new leadership theories being fixated on how a change in semantics can help change employee attitudes or how a new method of processing information or reorganizing work functions will revolutionize the way business is done or somehow invigorate this generation of workers.  However, these energies are for the most part misdirected.  And despite grandiose claims to the contrary, any purportedly new leadership concept is more likely to be another attempt to quantify or explain a particular aspect of the complex relationship between a Leader and his or her followers, or to address the failings of certain ineffective leadership practices; rather than being an epiphanic revelation introducing a whole new leadership dimension.  As new theories regularly ignore the fact that the hypothesis they purport to replace did not effectively elucidate the supposedly more productive leadership practices ascribed to it; or simply failed outright to correct the maladroit leadership styles or inept interactive techniques at which it was directed.  Subsequently, if a new theory should also miss the mark, it too will be replaced by yet another theory attempting to further illuminate the complicated alliance between those who lead and those who follow.  But even though some elements of a new theory may be in direct conflict with past theories or eventually prove to be without merit, few leadership theories have failed to contribute something to a broader understanding of the subject matter.  Nevertheless, "confusion in theory means confusion in practice" (Dr. Burrhus Frederic (B. F.) Skinner, American Behavioral Psychologist & Author: Science and Human Behavior 1953, 1904-1990).  Though on balance, Leaders are far better off following an imperfect leadership philosophy that can be periodically amended than to simply grope their way along blindfolded.

 

(A) Fundamental to understanding the progression of leadership science is to note that: (i) the inherent elements of motivation and the physiological and emotional needs of human beings have remained constant since the dawn of modern civilization (c. 10,000 years ago) and most probably for tens of thousands of years before the introduction of agriculture, (ii) that though the leadership styles employed may have varied substantially, there have always been effective Leaders down through the centuries who have had highly motivated followers who were primarily responsible for their achievements, and  (iii) that the much acclaimed "global economy" has endured multiple periods of acute change or social upheaval equal to or greater than that now being experienced, as well.  Therefore, if a leadership model ultimately proves defective in explaining the intricate dynamic between Leaders and their followers, it is much more likely that it failed to clarify an effective leadership or motivational technique, rather than becoming obsolete due to a fundamental change in human nature or the marketplace.  For much as the fears of a hoplite in the front row of a Macedonian phalanx commanded by Alexander the Great (World Conqueror, 356-323 B.C.) varied little from the fears of the Patriots standing at Lexington green (April 19, 1775), the Confederates charging the Union line at Gettysburg (July 3, 1863), the WWI Doughboys going over-the-top (attacking from the trenches) at Saint-Mihiel (September 12, 1918), the GIs storming the beaches at Normandy (WWII, June 6, 1944) or Inchon (Korean War, September 15, 1950), or the Baby Boomers who jumped from helicopters into the rice paddies of Vietnam (1960s); so too have the elements of human motivation remained consistent throughout the millennia (Patton, NS p367).  And as the principles set forth in the Art of War (Sun Tzu, Chinese General, 4th century B.C.) have stood the test of time, the leadership behaviors that motivate people to higher levels of achievement have also proved to be surprisingly unwavering down through the ages, though the actual tactics employed or the underlying circumstances can often make them appear quite dissimilar.

 

(B) While logically, the understanding of a leadership theory is not the same thing as assimilating or actually practicing the recommended improvements in leadership behavior, every theory should at least provide an underlying interactive rationale explaining why the recommended behavioral changes will have the desired impact on the Leader's Subordinates and thereby improve results.  However, many leadership theorists have repeatedly fallen short of specifically detailing the day-to-day behavioral changes that are necessary to achieve the alluded to improvements; and have often left the average Leader's head filled with visionary ideals, utopian goals, or inspiring syntax; but without a hard copy instruction manual for their implementation or assembly.  Such documentation being absolutely essential to avoid confusion because "in theory there is no difference between theory and practice.  [but] In practice there is" (Lawrence Peter "Yogi" Berra, American Baseball Player & Manager, 1925-20??).  Thus again, "a management system (theory) should provide a framework for picturing the major factors in the situation as an integrated whole.  It should be realistic.  It should simplify the complex rather than complicate the simple" (George S. Odiorne, American Professor & Management Theorist, 1920-1992).

 

(C) In analytical terms a theory is a coherent group of propositions derived from observing certain phenomena or a collection of facts (Webster's) that provides a structure or "systematic framework to explain [such] observations" (Jerry Alder, Newsweek, February 7, 2005, p46) or information and how they interrelate.  And while not entering the realm of total certitude, theories are used to fill in the gaps between what can be proved and what still remains unknown so as to advance a specific sphere of learning.  However, they are far more scientifically supportable than mere speculation, hunches, or conjectures that must be taken primarily on faith.  Typically, the more valid a theory, the more it stands to reason, and the more momentum it tends to gain through further inquiry and the accumulation of additional facts or knowledge.  Conversely, one does not develop a theory in isolation to explain how things are supposed to work or to point to where he or she emotionally wants to go; and then proceed to gather just the facts or information that support the theory and simply ignore conflicting data or twist explanations to suit his or her self-serving purpose.  As in any area of serious inquiry "disputes are not settled by a majority vote" (Jerry Alder, Newsweek, February 7, 2005, p50) or by supposition alone; but by collecting and analyzing additional facts and information.  Nor can such seriously flawed theorems be expected to garner much respect in the intellectual community or among a Leader's more perspicacious Subordinates.

 

(D) Additionally, many alleged leadership theories are actually implementation formats or operational techniques used to accomplish a prescribed end result (e.g., improved quality, decreased costs, or better customer relations), and offer very little in the way of increased understanding of the interactive experience or relationship between a Leader and his or her Subordinates.  And only on rare occasion does an author thoroughly analyze the behavioral aspects of the recommended leadership technique that have a direct bearing on a Leader's ability to motivate his or her Subordinates to achieve higher performance levels.  However, throughout the development of leadership science few theories have actually failed to produce some improvement under certain circumstances despite how ephemeral such results may have ultimately proved to be.  Thus Theory X, Theory Y, Scanlon plans, Theory Z, teams, TQM (total quality management), quality driven management, participatory management, empowerment, reengineering, or open-book management have all experienced varying degrees of success under different operating circumstances.  For regardless of its inherent validity, it is not the quality of the theory that produces the desired result, but the leadership qualities of those who are charged with its implementation; much in the same way that: "men [women] count for more than guns in the rating of a ship" (allegedly, John Paul Jones, American Revolutionary War Naval Hero, 1747-1792).  Consequently, while almost every new theory claims to provide some form of improved interactive medium through which to better communicate, organize, or provide Subordinates with a greater sense of achievement; none successfully supersede the overwhelming influence of the Leader's motivational skills or replace his or her momentous personal impact on the training and development functions.  So rather than perpetually seeking a quick, pay-at-the-pump, shortcut remedy for their leadership imperfections (which at best can provide only a temporary respite from the underlying issues), Leaders should concentrate on enhancing their motivational skills over the long term; and rationally evaluate the latest theory or technique as to how it can assist this effort rather than swallowing it hook, line, and sinker.  However, "many soldiers [or Leaders] are led to faulty ideas of war [leadership] by knowing too much about too little" (Patton) or believing that a single perspective or leadership book—no matter how thick—can provide all the answers.  Thus it is often "better [to] be ignorant of a matter than [to] half know it" (Publilius Syrus, Syrian-Roman Philosopher, 1st century B.C.) or come to half-baked conclusions.

 

(E) Likewise in developing their junior supervisors, Leaders must indicate the specific behavioral or procedural changes that are necessary for achieving the desired improvement; as vague theories or esoteric ideas about human behavior rarely lead to quantifiably more productive results.  And the use of complicated or ill-defined classroom models that require more effort to understand and implement than they may provide in direct benefit should be totally avoided.  Leaders must also carefully evaluate the long-term impact resulting from any changes in their leadership behavior; and not allow themselves to become carried away with recondite or otherwise perplexing concepts that are beyond the comprehension of the majority of their Subordinates.  For though Leaders may purposefully wish to "stretch" their Subordinates' intellectual proficiency, when the greater majority of their Subordinates are waving their arms over their heads hoping to catch some of it as it goes by, it is high time to have a closer alignment between the theoretical premise and its practical application.  As "a good leader can't get too far ahead of his [her] followers" (Franklin Delano Roosevelt, 32nd U.S. President 1933-1945, 1882-1945), or he or she will soon be considered to be out of touch with reality and lose their confidence.

 

(F) And notwithstanding the business journalists who enthusiastically glorify the action-oriented, no-nonsense, tough-minded Leader who lands on a struggling organization's doorstep with all the compassion and human interactive skills of a metropolitan serial-killer, nearly every leadership technique or theory, following the inception of this body of thought, has put forth increasingly greater emphasis on expanding the individual worker's potential contribution and enhancing the depth of the Leader-Subordinate relationship.  Thus any glorification of the gunslinger mentality or the "no-more-mister-nice-guy," take-no-prisoners supervisory philosophy as being a harbinger of a "high noon shoot-out" between the forces of humanism and wanton efficiency is just as misguided as those who mistakenly believe that a permissive, undisciplined work ethic promotes a people-oriented environment that can produce acceptable fiscal results.  But while few leadership luminaries have ever recommended a complete abandonment of the nineteenth century industrial engineer's stopwatch or the total discontinuance of some form of performance analysis, nearly all such writers in the second half of the twentieth century have recommended broadening the workers' responsibilities, augmenting their job function, and involving them to a substantially greater extent in the decision making process as the keystones for increasing both proficiency and profitability.  Therefore, it is far more likely that any additional leadership theory will fill in another piece of the Leader-Subordinate motivational jigsaw puzzle, rather than open up a whole new plane of interactive enlightenment.  (For a comprehensive outline of the major contributors in the historical development of managerial-leadership thought from the mid 1800s through the mid 1900s, the reader is referred to Joseph L. Massie, Essentials of Management, Chapter One).

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Copyright 2006 by H. Garrett Hayward from Face the Challenge: The Leader's Success Handbook