Academic Leadership

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What is taught about leadership in our schools and corporate training? For the most part leadership is often taught as a bundle of traits and behaviors expected of leaders, minus of the tools and training to actually forge these traits and behaviors into habits of excellence. We wonder why things continue to feel hollow when we spend so much time trying new things, seeking the Holy Grail of leadership, without committing to a personal authenticity practice or value long enough to make it part of our very being.

A Naval Academy student, attending SEALFIT academy, stated that the reason he was excited to attend SEALFIT was to get some “real” training. His experience, going into his senior year at the Naval Academy, was that there was no risk tolerance or reality in the training he had received. It was all “show and tell” and did not allow the midshipmen to really test themselves as men, or to fail. He and his peers were desperately seeking authentic experiences and came to SEALFIT to find them. This institution (USNA) that was once revered for its ability to forge future leaders has been watered down over time. Unfortunately this can tend to happen in corporate and government institutions.  

It may be instructive to look at common leadership paradigms leadership before we embark on analyzing our model for Authentic Leadership. First, leadership is not about being “gung ho” with a ‘take no prisoners’ mentality. This mentality can lead to some short term wins, but it inevitably leads to team burn out over the long term. Sadly this is a common approach found in military and bureaucratic positions of authority. The truth is, Authentic Leadership is also not a set of traits, behaviors and characteristics as taught in business school. These are merely observed by-products of an authentic leader in action. Though clarifying and communicating a vision is a key skill, leadership is not about being a grand visionary – many grand visionaries fail as leaders because they are not realistic and get married to their vision, unwilling to adapt to changing circumstances. Leadership is not just the ability to motivate others through rewards and punishments, nor is it just “situational” as Navy leadership training suggests. Finally, leadership is not found in a specialized set of skills, such as productivity management, six sigma black belt and total quality management. Those are great management tools that a good leader may adopt to fortify his team/operation, but not the core of his/her leadership ability. As mentioned earlier a problem with common views of leadership is their partial and limited approach to the symptoms of a lack of leadership or the attributes of an effective leadership interaction.

Servant Leadership, Situational Leadership, Visionary Leadership, Gung Ho! Leadership are all examples of popular theories. These are all valuable perspectives on leadership, but they are just models. The prerequisite is often missed in these programs – that of the commitment to self-mastery on the part of the would-be leader and the development of the initial trust bond between leader and follower. If there is no commitment to self-mastery and deep introspection on the part of the leader, then even the best intentioned theories fall at when executed.

Let’s take a quick tour through some of the most common leadership theories to cover our bases:

Competency Theory is the result of a modern take on traditional leadership theories. Applying modern psychological frameworks, rather than innate character traits leaders must possess specific competencies. Examples of leadership competencies include: making difficult decisions, leading during a crisis, problem solving, developing and holding a vision, and inspiring others. This theory complements our Authentic Leadership model in that these are certainly competencies we expect in authentic leaders. The difference is we believe they are habits formed through deep inner development work, and cannot be taught in a classroom. This model is popular with those who hold a traditional worldview.

Visionary Leadership is another classic leadership style that proposes that a leader’s compelling vision for the future to drive organizational change and individual performance is the driving force of leadership. Visionary leaders are considered to have self-confidence and high cognitive capability and use power in different ways depending on the context of a given situation. This model does not suggest how to develop vision, a key competency of being an Unbeatable Mind authentic leader.

Charismatic Leadership suggests that charisma is an individual character trait that an individual either has or doesn’t have. Advocates of this style see charisma emerging from relationship between leader and follower in which the leader influences by weaving a charismatic spell on the follower. This theory falls at in that some of the most effective leaders lack this so-called charisma. What they do have is courage, which is quite different. Bill Clinton was very charismatic, but lacked courage and integrity and failed in his leadership of the country as a result. It doesn’t mean we didn’t like him – most people did, and he was and still is a very popular political figure.

Transactional Leadership emphasizes extrinsic motivation in the form of rewards for desired follower behavior. It is concerned with what academics call “management by exception” and “contingency reward.” This is a directive approach to influence that is closely related to Strategic Leadership. Strategic Leadership emphasizes vision, goal achievement, and rationally informed paths to success. Strategic leaders work with others to develop a shared vision and intelligent plan that leads to the accomplishment of goals and the steady improvement of the organization. Transactional, Pragmatic, and Strategic styles are most popular with people with a Modern worldview (a.k.a. scientifc rationalism). I view this model largely as a management system approach to organizational effectiveness. It does not have much to do with leading individuals and teams.

Building on the work of James MacGregor Burns, Transformational Leadership is a people-centric (humanistic) model emphasizing tapping teammates potential through meaning, shared learning, and mutual empowerment. There are many expressions of transformational leadership, all of which seek to inspire followers while drawing on emotional intelligence, social and political sensitivity, transparency and authenticity. Not surprisingly, these theories are produced by, and popular with those who hold a Postmodern worldview (a.k.a. egalitarian, relativistic-pluralistic).

Robert Greenleaf’s Servant Leadership model has appeal as it treats service as a skill and focus for the leader. The essence of servant leadership is that the organizational chart is turned upside down. The CEO and senior leadership are servants of their direct reports, mid-level management serves the people they support, and the customer is at the (now) top of the org chart as the ultimate group to serve. Interestingly, this leadership style is popular both with those who hold a Traditional worldview as well as those with a Postmodern worldview which put a premium on the values of “purpose” and “service.”

Contingency Theory holds that none of the above styles is best; rather, the best style depends on the circumstances. Fiedler’s contingency theory suggests that task or people-oriented leadership style effectiveness depends on the situation (e.g. structure of work, position power, and relationship). Path-goal theory involves leaders incentivizing followers to hit milestones toward pre-defined goals. (This is essentially Fiedler plus motivation and is understandably popular with transactional and strategic leadership proponents.) Blake and Mouton’s Managerial Grid is based on two factors: task orientation vs. people orientation. Action-centered leadership theory is essentially Blake and Mouton’s Managerial Grid extended with the notion that effective leaders focus on task, team and individual. Bass and others have proposed a contingency model that includes: directive, consultative, participative, negotiative, and delegative approaches. Blanchard’s popular Situational leadership model used by the Navy is a contingency model that suggests a different set of leadership styles based on the skills and traits of the followers.

As noted, these theories are not right or wrong, simply incomplete. Some mistake management techniques for leadership while others take a small bite out of the leadership pie. As a result those in leadership roles, or aspiring to be leaders, face a frustrating cacophony of ideas and models with few tools to do the deep work they need to do to actually develop themselves into the type of people one would aspire to follow and trust implicitly.

Course Discussion