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Individual Reflective Account Of Leadership Development

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Business
Wordcount: 4511 words Published: 25th Apr 2017

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Title: A personal reflective narrative on how engaging with the leadership literature has affected my own conceptualisations of leadership.


The theories of transformational leadership (Bass, 1985; Bass and Avolio, 1994) and charismatic leadership (Conger and Kanungo, 1987) represent popular approaches to the conceptualisation of leadership and have arguably evolved to be central to the field. However, a number of scholars have raised several issues with these approaches (Pawar, 2003; Yukl, 1999). and it is the intention here to highlight a number of concerns that relate to the challenge of teaching leadership. This addresses an area of neglect in the literature as there has been limited consideration of the teaching of leadership (Doh, 2003).

The Meaning of Leadership

Researchers interested in leadership have approached the development of an understanding of leadership from a variety of perspectives. Much of the leadership research conducted during the first half of twentieth century was focused on the identification of personal traits (attributes) that characterised those individuals who emerged as leaders.

A review of the leadership literature reveals that there are multiple definitions that have been given to the leadership construct. Bass (1990) focuses on the concept of leadership. He suggests that there are several different approaches to the definition. While each of these perspectives and uses of the term is a legitimate use of the construct of leadership, each reflects a different conceptualization than that which traditionally has been employed. Bass points out that definitions can be used to serve a variety of purposes. Bass (1960) noted that the definition used in a particular study of leadership depends on the purposes of the study. Consistent with this, Yukl (1994:5) concluded that “leadership research should be designed to provide information relevant to the entire range of definitions, so that over time it will be possible to compare the utility of different conceptualizations and arrive at some consensus on the matter.”

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Bass (1990:19) further notes that researchers have developed definitions to serve the following different purposes: (1) to identify the object to be observed, (2) to identify a form of practice, (3) to satisfy a particular value orientation, (4) to avoid a particular orientation or implication for a practice, and (5) to provide a basis for the development of theory. The definitions indicate a progression of thought, although historically, many trends overlapped. The earlier definitions identified leadership as a focus of group process and movement, personality in action. The next type considered it as the art of inducing compliance. The more recent definitions conceive of leadership in terms of influence relationships, power differentials, persuasion, influence on goal achievement, role differentiation, reinforcement, initiation of structure, and perceived attributions of behaviour that are consistent with what the what the perceivers believe leadership to be. The truth is that leadership may in fact involve all these things.

Rethinking leadership

Barker (1997) argues that the ambiguity surrounding what we understand as leadership is central to the struggle of teaching leadership. Rost (1991) indeed notes that the leadership literature although vast, is often contradictory, confusing and lacks cohesion. BrymanHYPERLINK “http://0-www.emeraldinsight.com.emu.londonmet.ac.uk/journals.htm?issn=0143-7739&volume=27&issue=2&articleid=1545747&show=html#idb11″‘HYPERLINK “http://0-www.emeraldinsight.com.emu.londonmet.ac.uk/journals.htm?issn=0143-7739&volume=27&issue=2&articleid=1545747&show=html#idb11″s (1996) documentation of four chronological phases of leadership theory, is illustrative of changing conceptions of leadership:

Trait theories (concerned with an identification of leader’s traits).

Behavioural theories (concerned with identification of behavioural styles of leaders).

Contingency theories (concerned with a focus on fitting behavioural styles to situational factors).

“New theories of leadership” (concerned with a focus on the articulation of a vision).

Arguably, such “new theories” of leadership have over recent years evolved as central to our understanding of leadership with an emphasis on transformational leadership where a leader stimulates followers to change their motives, beliefs and values and capabilities so that the followers own interests and personal goals become congruent with the organisation (Bass, 1985). An important facet of this leadership is charisma, and indeed Conger and Kanungo (1987) have developed a leadership theory that specifically focuses on this dimension. Conger HYPERLINK “http://0-www.emeraldinsight.com.emu.londonmet.ac.uk/journals.htm?issn=0143-7739&volume=27&issue=2&articleid=1545747&show=html#idb17″et al.HYPERLINK “http://0-www.emeraldinsight.com.emu.londonmet.ac.uk/journals.htm?issn=0143-7739&volume=27&issue=2&articleid=1545747&show=html#idb17” (2000, p. 748) suggest that charismatic leaders differ from other leaders by their “ability to formulate and articulate an inspirational vision and by behaviours that they and their mission are extraordinary”. In both models there is a common suggestion of a leader inspiring followers to a shared vision. This conceptualisation has arguably become widely accepted in the literature. However, some have questioned such mainstream thinking and invite a greater openness to the consideration of leadership than is presently found (Alvesson and Sveningsson, 2003).

It is suggested here that a notion of a leader inspiring followers to a shared vision represents only one way to think about leadership and may not be of much assistance to those concerned with the teaching of leadership. It is in this respect that I intend to argue that this dominant conceptualisation represents a particular way of thinking about organisations and managerial work (of which leadership is one aspect), namely what may be described as “systems-control” thinking.

Systems-control orthodoxy tends to promote a rather mechanistic view of organisations and managerial work seeing managing as an activity mainly concerned with “designing and controlling work organisations as if they were big machine-like systems rationally devised to meet unambiguous organisational goals” (Watson, 2005, p. 2). Such thinking derives from modernist and universalistic aspirations to maximise control over human circumstances with the manager being viewed as an expert who controls and motivates subordinates to behave in particular ways consistent with the organisation’s goals. Indeed, Barker (2001, p. 479) challenges the notion of “new” leadership theory, arguing that the work of Bass (1985, 1990) for example, clings to the idea that “leadership is about leaders supervising subordinates, about subordinates working hard toward institutional objectives as the primary goal for leadership and about the leader’s ability to persuade/inspire/motivate subordinates to release their own needs to work toward the interests of the leader or the institution that the leader represents”. The extent then to which new theories provide an alternative perspective of leadership is thus questionable since along with previous conceptualisations, they continue to be framed by systems-control thinking.

It is suggested that an alternative way to think about leadership is to adopt process-relational thinking. To adopt such thinking would be to recognise that:

Managers like everyone else in organisational settings, are continually striving to make sense of numerous crosscutting and conflicting goals and purposes. Managers and non-managers alike constantly have to make and remake bargains, exert power, resist power, cope with conflicts of interest and negotiate understandings with others to make sure that the goods are produced or services provided to a level and quality that enables the organisation to remain in existence (Watson, 2005, pp. 2-3).

The origins of such thinking may be seen to be associated with a dissatisfaction with mainstream systems-control thinking and in particular, the critique of Silverman (1970) which drew upon ideas from social action theory (Berger and Luckman, 1967), highlighting an understanding of organisations as social constructs produced and reproduced through their members’ activities and later being built upon to emphasise the notion of negotiated order (Day and Day, 1977). To view the organisation in process-relational terms thus involves a shift from seeing the organisation as a goal pursuing entity as suggested by a systems-control perspective to thinking about the organisation as “ongoing patterns of meaning making and activity brought about as … people in relationships to others and to their cultures” (Watson, 2005, p. 6). Viewing the organisation through a process-relational lens thus accepts that only partial managerial control can ever be achieved given the ongoing and emergent nature of organisational activity and the centrality of “people in relationships to others” with their inevitable complexities and differing interests. However, it is important to note that the adoption of a process-relational perspective (or indeed a systems-control one) goes beyond a way of seeing the organising and managing of work, it also represents a way of talking and acting towards organising and managing. Thus a manager who adopts a process-relational framework is more likely to take into account broader and more-subtle aspects of work behaviour.

Arguably, the central notion of leader’s inspiring followers to a shared vision seen in new leadership theories becomes more problematic when thinking in process-relational terms. It is thus suggested here that thinking about leadership in process-relational terms may be more helpful to management educators as it does greater justice to the complex, messy realities of organisational life and as such provides greater assistance in helping managers to make sense of their management practice, and in particular, the part of their practice that is leadership.

Systems-control vs process-relational framing of leadership

It is suggested that theories of transformational and charismatic leadership are tied to a systems-control perspective of organisations. Below we raise a number of issues that emerge from the adoption of such a perspective. The issues raised here are by no means exhaustive but rather serve to illustrate some of the difficulties in framing leadership in a systems-control way and in particular ensuing tensions for the teaching of leadership draws on the work of Watson (2005) and summarises the issues discussed below, highlighting the central features of a systems-control leadership perspective contrasted with a process-relational one. We problematise a number of features of systems-control thinking in relation to leadership, namely the assumption of a unitary organisation; the emphasis placed upon the individual leader often portrayed in terms of superhero status and the subsequent neglect of others involved in leadership processes, and relatedly the separation and elevation of leadership from other organisational activities. We suggest that adopting a process-relational leadership perspective offers a more grounded and realistic conceptualisation which accepts the plurality of organisational life, focuses on leadership as an emergent process which includes the contributions of others and sees leadership as integral to the organising and managing of work.

The unitary and fixed organisation

Central to systems-control thinking is a notion of the pursuit of clear organisational goals, designed by the manager or leader who then motivates others to act in ways which will achieve these goals. It is suggested that this is problematic for a number of reasons. Such a way of thinking about leadership is based upon a unitary view of organisations that proposes all organisational members share the goals of the organisation and are thus motivated to act in ways that will ensure the realisation of such goals. Both transformational and charismatic leadership theories can be seen to uphold unitarist assumptions. Central to Bass’s theory is a notion of subordinates transcending their self interests for the goals of the organisation, with Bass and Avolio (1994, p. 3) for example suggesting that “the (transformational) leader creates clearly communicated expectations that followers want to meet”, and similarly Conger and Kanungo (1987) hypothesise that charismatic leadership will result in high internal cohesion, low internal conflict, high value congruence and high consensus. It is suggested that such assumptions are problematic since they downplay the multitude of conflicting goals, purposes and beliefs that organisational members hold in reality that seriously questions ideals of consensus and cohesion. Although Bass and Avolio (1994) acknowledge that followers hold a diverse set of views, needs and aspirations, they suggest that through the use of inspirational motivation the leader is able to align diverse followers around a vision. Thus there remains a belief that high consensus can be achieved and thus conflict, negotiation and politics that are inevitable in organisations tend to be marginalised. Notably, Barker (1997) reminds us of BurnsHYPERLINK “http://0-www.emeraldinsight.com.emu.londonmet.ac.uk/journals.htm?issn=0143-7739&volume=27&issue=2&articleid=1545747&show=html#idb12″‘HYPERLINK “http://0-www.emeraldinsight.com.emu.londonmet.ac.uk/journals.htm?issn=0143-7739&volume=27&issue=2&articleid=1545747&show=html#idb12″s (1978) definition of leadership which emphasises leadership as a process which occurs within a context of competition and conflict. Interestingly, Bass’s theory of transformational leadership has built upon Burns’s work and yet downplays this important dimension.

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It may be argued that assumptions of a unitary organisation may oversimplify the reality that is found in organisations. Similarly, systems-control thinking implies that the goals of the organisation are somehow fixed and once achieved the work of the leader is done. Again, this is seen to oversimplify the case. Conger and Kanungo, 1987, p. 46) exemplify a focus on achievement of fixed goals suggesting that “one cannot lead when there is no future goal to pursue”. This is seen to ignore the essentially emergent nature of organisational life in that organising and managing is in a constant state of becoming (Watson, 2002). The fluid and dynamic nature of organisations makes it difficult to envisage when there would be no future goal to pursue.

Generally, given that models of transformational and charismatic leadership are framed by systems-control thinking means that they may be seen as less helpful in assisting managers to understand leadership as they do not do justice to the complex reality found in organisations. Recent leadership research and findings from our own work further suggest a number of issues with such theories that relate to this tendency to present an oversimplified and sometimes romanticised view of organisational life.

The promotion of the superhero

Consistent with systems-control thinking, theories of transformational and charismatic leadership present an individualistic conception of leadership, since there is a focus on the leader as a special person. Indeed, there is a focus on a gifted individual seemingly in possession of almost superhuman, magical powers that may be seen to spellbind followers to act in ways desired by the leader. Words such as “extraordinary”, “unconventional” and “heroic” typify a description of leader behaviours. Bass (1985, pp. 47-48) for example, highlights the extraordinariness of the transformational, charismatic leader suggesting that “the unusual vision of charismatic leaders that makes it possible for them to ‘see around corners’ stems from their greater freedom from internal conflict” whereas “the ordinary manager is a continuing victim of their self doubts and personal traumas”. However, it is unclear from the literature what exactly it means to be extraordinary or unconventional and therefore limited help is offered to our practical attempts to teach leadership. Moreover, Alimo-Metcalfe HYPERLINK “http://0-www.emeraldinsight.com.emu.londonmet.ac.uk/journals.htm?issn=0143-7739&volume=27&issue=2&articleid=1545747&show=html#idb1″et al.HYPERLINK “http://0-www.emeraldinsight.com.emu.londonmet.ac.uk/journals.htm?issn=0143-7739&volume=27&issue=2&articleid=1545747&show=html#idb1” (2002) argue that new theories of leadership create dangerous myths because “they create a notion of leadership that is inaccessible to most ordinary mortals”. Further, the idea that a leader must in some way be gifted shows a regression to notions of leadership as an innate ability and as such suggests little can be done by way of teaching leadership. Indeed, in my own auditing work, I found several managers who perceived leadership as an inspirational gift and therefore attempts to teach leadership were seen as limited:

I don’t think good leaders are people that you can, I think the term is a good leader is born, you can’t turn somebody from being a poor leader into a good leader by putting them on some courses … that sort of inspirational skill is something that that individual has and I don’t think you can always train that into somebody (project manager).

Whilst the notion of heroic leadership may hold weight for some there is a growing body of evidence that debunks this leadership myth. Numerous studies are now found which may be said to contribute to an emerging anti-heroic leadership perspective which suggests leaders are not larger than life individuals with special powers rather they are far more ordinary and reserved.

The work of Alimo-Metcalfe and Alban-Metcalfe (2001) offers a very different conception of transformational leadership to that described earlier. Their work highlights the salience of what the leader does for the individual such as empowering, valuing, supporting and encouraging. This is contrasted with dominant ideas of the leader acting as a role model and inspiring the follower. Indeed, Alimo-Metcalfe and Alban-Metcalfe suggest that followership, so central to transformational and charismatic leadership theory is absent in their work. Comments made by managers during my own audit work were consistent with this view with managers talking of supporting and encouraging others rather than inspiring followers:

Well those things leadership can be a reassurance, a firm decision, a supportive decision, giving people encouragement, being actually prepared to stick your head above the parapet where other people aren’t sometimes. Being decisive rather than indecisive. Not always leading from the front but just letting people know that you are supportive of what they are doing that they can rely on you if things go wrong (operations director).

Taking away the notion of followership diminishes the importance of the heroic leader since there is a decreased need for an inspirational figure to model the way for followers. Instead Alimo-Metcalfe and Alban-Metcalfe (2001) argue that their work suggests a greater sense of proximity, openness, humility and vulnerability.

Collins (2001) provides evidence that suggests that successful organisations do not have leaders who are charismatic, heroic figures but rather individuals who display personal humility and professional will. He found that successful leaders which he terms “level five” leaders, were shy unpretentious, awkward and modest but at the same time had an enormous amount of ambition not for themselves but the organisation. Similarly, Badaracco (2001) suggests the importance of “quiet leadership”. This is seen not to inspire or thrill, but to focus on small things, careful moves and measured efforts. He further suggests that quiet leaders have an understanding of the reality of their situations noting the limits of their powers and understanding that they are only “one piece on the chessboard”. This emerging work would seem to conceptualise leadership in perhaps more realistic ways focusing attention away from ideas of inspirational powers and instead a suggestion of an ordinary person working alongside others. This is consistent with a process-relational framing of leadership since it is recognised that leaders are “like everybody else” and do not possess special powers thus moving attention away from ideas of special personality attributes. Thus there is hope for the majority of being able to contribute to leadership and a suggestion that there may be some role for the management teacher.

The isolated leader and the neglect of group processes

The focus on the heroic leader is problematic since it diverts attention from others involved in the leadership process and thus downplays the relational aspects of leadership. Whilst the contribution of followers is noted, there is a tendency to over emphasise the ability of the individual leader, this is perhaps exemplified when poor performance is automatically blamed on the actions of the leader (Khurana, 2002). Yukl (1999) proposes that instead of focusing on a single person who influences followers, many people can be viewed as contributors to the overall process of leadership in organisations. He suggests that this conception of leadership does not require an individual who is exceptional or who can perform all of the essential leadership functions, only a set of people who collectively perform them.

Research undertaken by Heifetz and Laurie (2001) supports the notion of a more collaborative conception of leadership. They suggest that the leader is not somebody who has all the solutions at their disposal; rather they are somebody who asks questions. They suggest that “one can lead with no more than a question in hand”.

Research carried out with directors of public health in the UK supports the notion of focusing on others in the leadership process (McAreavey HYPERLINK “http://0-www.emeraldinsight.com.emu.londonmet.ac.uk/journals.htm?issn=0143-7739&volume=27&issue=2&articleid=1545747&show=html#idb28″et al.HYPERLINK “http://0-www.emeraldinsight.com.emu.londonmet.ac.uk/journals.htm?issn=0143-7739&volume=27&issue=2&articleid=1545747&show=html#idb28”, 2001). The directors of public health interviewed in McAreavey HYPERLINK “http://0-www.emeraldinsight.com.emu.londonmet.ac.uk/journals.htm?issn=0143-7739&volume=27&issue=2&articleid=1545747&show=html#idb28″et al.HYPERLINK “http://0-www.emeraldinsight.com.emu.londonmet.ac.uk/journals.htm?issn=0143-7739&volume=27&issue=2&articleid=1545747&show=html#idb28″‘HYPERLINK “http://0-www.emeraldinsight.com.emu.londonmet.ac.uk/journals.htm?issn=0143-7739&volume=27&issue=2&articleid=1545747&show=html#idb28″s (2001) study suggested that effective leadership placed an emphasis on working with others and not guiding others.

These shifts in focus are consistent with work by Barker (1997) and Rost (1991) who suggested that we should be focusing on group processes and think of collaborators and not followers and thus is in accordance with Alimo-Metcalfe and Alban-Metcalfe’s rejection of followership. Yukl (1999) has criticised transformational and charismatic leadership theories for a neglect of group processes and thus salient aspects of leadership are overlooked such as networking, building support for ideas and negotiation. Such arguments echo Hosking (1988) who proposed that it would be more helpful to focus on leadership as a process rather than leaders as persons which is clearly to frame leadership in process-relational terms. It is suggested here that viewing leadership as a collaborative process of interaction provides for a more grounded notion of leadership and thus potentially provides more helpful suggestions for teaching leadership. For example, a focus on helping leaders in their attempts to negotiate seems more achievable than helping leaders to inspire others.

The separation of leadership and management

Inherent to theories of transformational and charismatic leadership is a notion that leadership is a specialised and separate activity undertaken by heroic, isolated figures described above. This division of leadership is typical of orthodox management thinking which separates issues of managerial work tending to view these as identifiable and distinct (Watson, 2002). As Schruijer and Vansina (2002) argue such splitting obscures the complexity of life. Further, there is a tendency not only to see leadership as separate from management but also superior. In Bass’s theory for example, management is associated with transactional leadership which is seen to be a useful but inferior leadership approach, which is relatively simple and straightforward to achieve. Bass (1985, p. 26) argues that “to be transactional is the easy way out; to be transformational is the more difficult path to pursue”. Such a separation is upheld by numerous scholars such as Zaleznik (1992) who suggests that managers are concerned with humdrum activities and maintaining order whereas leaders are concerned with novel and exciting activities and stimulate change. Mangham and Pye (1991, p. 13) have criticised this separation arguing that:

It results in nothing more than a vague feeling that managing is something rather mundane, looking after the nuts and bolts of the enterprise and leading is something special and precious undertaken by the really important people in the enterprise. They argue that leading is not a specialised and separate activity, but simply an aspect albeit a highly salient aspect, of managing. Others have similarly suggested that leadership and management may be more usefully seen as related roles rather than as separate activities undertaken by separate people (Nadler and Tushman, 1990; Yukl, 1999).


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