Wednesday, January 5, 2011

What Makes an Effective Leader: An Overview

I want to post today about effective leadership.  To paraphrase Joseph Nye, leadership is like the weather.  Everyone depends on it and talks about it, but very few people understand it.  
and some weathermen are more effective than others

What my goal is on this post is to explore with you what it means to be an effective leader and why it is so difficult to give a simple prescription for effective leadership.  

First, I will talk about what leadership means and what a leader actually does.  
Next, we will look at what we mean by effective leadership.   
Then we will look at some models that help us think about how leaders operate and what conclusions we can draw from the models.    
Finally we will consider gender, ethics, and culture as factors in effective leadership, and then see what we can conclude from all this.

What a Leader Actually Does
We all know what a leader is.  So what then do they actually do?  Leadership has many definitions, but a few describe particularly well what leaders do at a high level:   

1. Leaders frame events for others to provide meaning as a basis for action using narratives.  
political cartoonists are masters at framing events for others to make a point

2. Leaders unite others with a sense of purpose, unity, and common direction.   
Kemal Ataturk united a fractured Turkey to achieve astounding goals
 Kemal Ataturk, the father of modern Turkey, took a broken and disheartened Turkey after WWI and achieved 3 political revolutions, 13 social reformations, and 4 educational and cultural reformations, including teaching the population a new alphabet in three months.

3. Leaders use power that has been granted to them by others to clarify, pursue, and achieve common goals.   
this, in theory, is why we have politicians

Notice how vague these definitions are, how open they are to interpretation.  This makes it difficult for us to conclude if a leader is effective.  However, the definitions do imply some basic guidelines we can use to determine if a leader is effective:   

1. Do they effectively acquire and use power in the clarification and pursuit of goals?   
2. Do they achieve those goals themselves?   
3. Do they achieve them by effectively motivating and mobilizing others?   
4. Are they seen as effective in all these dimensions by the vast majority of participants in (followers) and observers to the process?

Leadership Models
Over the years a number of models have been introduced that help us think about how leaders operate and therefore how they may be effective or ineffective.  The important commonality in these theories is the idea that leadership is a fluid concept:  what is effective leadership today in one context may not be effective leadership tomorrow in another context.   

One model proposes that leadership is a function of person, group, and context.   

This means that how effective a leader is depends on that person (the leader), the group they are interacting with, and what outside environmental factors there are.  For example, the an effective leader of a 2nd grade class may not be an effective coach of a professional football team.

Another maps out a leadership process, which is the ongoing interaction of a number of elements: the leader, the followers, the goal to be achieved, the context, and the outcomes, both intended and unintended.  Each of these elements can then be studied at a greater level of detail.   

There is also the Traits-Based Theory of Leadership, where we can look at the leader and ask what traits make a good leader (capacity, achievement, responsibility, participation, status).   

Another theory focuses on the relationship between the leader and followers (called LMX, or leader-member exchange theory).  Here we see that there is a psychological contract that naturally arises between a leader and follower, and that a leader’s use of rewards, punishment, and rational persuasion are directly related to how effective they are.   

Further, how a leader uses power over followers is important as evidenced by concepts of organizational justice (interactional, procedural, distributive).  Critical to the model is also the idea of context- what external and environmental factors are at play while leaders and followers are interacting and pursuing goals?  These factors directly affect the quality and effectiveness of leader/follower relationship and goal attainment.  Finally, the model draws attention to the importance of outcomes.  This includes not only whether the stated goal was attained, but how satisfied the followers are, and how motivated, committed, and trusting they are in the leader.

Sources of Leader Power
Now we have a better idea of how to think about the fluid nature of leadership and are beginning to see how a leader may be effective by using power well.  But where does a leader get his or her power from?   

Power is given to a leader either:
1. By direct appointment (for instance, being hired into a position), or 
2. By the group from which they emerge.  A theory called idiosyncrasy credit theory states that leaders are given credits from their group for meeting expectations and these credits can accumulate over time and be used, like a kind of currency, to influence others and secure a leadership position.   

If power is not given, it can still be acquired by a leader through control of critical and scarce resources.  For instance, if ten of you are lost in the woods and you are the only one with a map and a compass (or a GPS), then you have acquired power.  

spot the leader

Using Power to be Effective
But is leader effectiveness influenced by how a leader uses this power?  Absolutely.  Three factors influence this: ethics, gender, and culture.

Studies have shown that ethical leaders are more effective in that ethical leadership adds to a leader’s legitimacy and attractiveness.  It promotes followers to go above and beyond the call of duty and work harder to get tasks done.  In addition, it is associated with greater satisfaction in leader and higher ratings of leader effectiveness.  So ethics matters.   

What about gender?  Studies have found that while there is no overall difference in the effectiveness of one gender of leader over another, in certain situations certain genders perform better as leaders.  Some studies have gone as far as to define what personality traits are usually associated with which gender and to try to predict leader effectiveness based on these.   

And culture?  Does it factor into leadership effectiveness?  The general consensus is that yes, culture matters for the simple reason that expectations of leaders and judgments of their effectiveness reflect cultural expectations and values.  A scholar named Hofstede created five convenient measures of how cultures differ to help understand this better.  They are individualism/collectivism, power distance, uncertainty avoidance, masculinity/femininity, and time orientation (more on this in a future post).
more on this later

So what can we conclude from all this?  Is it a little clearer why it is so difficult to simply write a recipe, a list of instructions for effective leadershipWe can conclude that effective leadership is not a static thing.  It is best understood using models, each of which are fluid and conditional on a number of factors.  Although these models, taken together, do not give us a prescription for effective leadership, they do allow us to study leadership on a case-by-case basis and see generally what makes for effective leadership.

Sorry, no easy answer on this one!

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