Commentary / Leading by learning

A variety of qualities make a successful leader, including the willingness to acquire better skills

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The Internet has led most of us to experience information overload. A search for an answer to a simple question returns an avalanche of results, leaving us to sort the wheat from the chaff.

Something similar may happen to those who search the literature for tips to improve their leadership skills. Because of the large number of theories -- each of which looks at the issue from a different perspective -- simple answers can be hard to find.

There's also no clear consensus as to which theories most accurately capture the essence of effective leadership. This adds to the challenge for a practicing leader hoping to mine some nuggets of practical advice from the mountain of available literature.

Yet there are some concepts that have received fairly wide support across multiple theories. While these points are fairly general, they may provide some concrete suggestions for improving leadership effectiveness.

Leadership is individual. A central element of leadership is influencing, rather than directing, the behavior of followers so as to support organizational objectives. Motivation theory suggests people choose behaviors that they perceive are likely to satisfy their individual needs. It follows that leaders should be aware of the needs of their followers and demonstrate how the pursuit of organizational goals will lead to satisfaction of those needs. Employees are more likely to follow a leader if that leader is helping them satisfy their individual needs.

Leadership is personal. People do not follow a position; they follow a person. The position will, to an extent, convey some influence over the behavior of the followers. However, that influence is limited in scope and may disappear entirely if followers decide the leader is not worthy of the position.

The literature suggests that interpersonal skills, leading by example, justice, and a variety of personal characteristics may influence the perceived worthiness of a leader. In general, it is important to remember that leaders must earn their followers' willingness to follow.

Leadership is situational. While there are a few exceptions, most modern theories acknowledge the situational nature of leadership. Changes in situational variables seem to have a significant impact on the effectiveness of various approaches. As there are any number of potentially relevant situational variables, a more detailed discussion is not possible here.

The important point to remember is it is highly unlikely that any single leadership approach will be equally effective in all situations. Leaders must be adept at analyzing the situation and must adopt an approach that will maximize their effectiveness.

Leadership is learnable. Some of the earliest leadership theorists suggested effective leaders were essentially born with a certain set of characteristics that made them great leaders. It is now almost universally accepted that leadership is an acquirable skill.

The various theories differ in their identification of what should be learned, but the point remains valid that one can work at improving leadership skills. This doesn't mean that becoming a better leader is easy, but it does mean that those who wish to become better leaders have every reason to believe their efforts should pay dividends.

Of course, there's more to leadership theory than the simple points made here. For those interested in learning more, I highly recommend Peter G. Northouse's "Leadership: Theory and Practice." While there are many excellent books on leadership, Mr. Northouse provides a comprehensive, and yet concise, overview of leadership theory that lends itself well to practical application.

-- Eric S. Ecklund is an assistant professor of management at Saint Francis University. He is also a doctoral candidate in the Indiana University of Pennsylvania's Administration and Leadership Studies program.


First Published May 3, 2013 4:00 AM


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