What's a boss to do? Distilling useful knowledge from writings on leadership

It’s not difficult to unearth advice about how managers should exercise leadership. Take a stroll through Barnes and Noble and you’ll come across dozens of titles; conduct a search on Amazon using the keyword “leadership” and discover the number of entries is in the thousands. For those of us who would like to understand what it means to be effective in leadership roles, the problem is not finding advice; the problem is making sense of the abundant and frequently conflicting opinions on leadership.

Readers are advised that the keys to leadership effectiveness are to holler at employees (Schrage, 2013) and to keep quiet (Rock, 2007), to make expectations clear (Blanchard & Johnson, 1982) and to cultivate uncertainty that keeps employees off-guard (Clampitt & DeKoch, 2001), to take decisive action (Tasler, 2013) and to do nothing (Murnighan, 2012). We’re told that there are three H’s of leadership (Lomenick, 2015), five levels of leadership (Maxwell, 2013), 14 principles of leadership (Rossman, 2016), 15 commitments of leadership (Dethmer, Chapman, & Warner-Klemp, 2014), and 21 irrefutable laws of leadership (Maxwell again, 2007). The authors of these articles, books, and blogs have one thing in common – they seem to share the opinion that leadership matters. As to what they have to say about the things that managerial leaders should or should not do in order to be effective, that story is so muddled it brings to mind Alice in Wonderland: “’When I use a word,’ Humpty Dumpty said in rather a scornful tone, ‘it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less.’”

If we put Humpty Dumpty to our task at hand, he might well say, “When someone writes about effective leadership, effective leadership is simply what he or she means it to be – neither more nor less.”

And the confusion reflected in this collection of writings may explain, in part, why the pipeline of leadership talent is insufficient to meet the demand of organizations worldwide (e.g., Mueller, 2017). If those opining on leadership can’t come to a consensus on what leadership is or should be, can we reasonably expect consumers of that work will know how to cultivate leadership effectiveness?

The answer to this question is that there is a science of leadership that we can learn from. This science is not perfect. Leadership is a complex concept to capture, scholars have different opinions themselves and all too often the research is sufficiently poorly communicated that an outside reader would find the literature as bewildering as Alice did Wonderland. But that science has revealed many useful insights into the effective practice of leadership. Here at Lead Read Today, we are committed to communicating that science in a way that leaders can use. Whether we deliver on that promise is something you’ll tell us.

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Here at Lead Read Today, we endeavor to take an objective (rational, scientific) approach to analyzing leaders and leadership. All opinion pieces will be reviewed for appropriateness, and the opinions shared are solely of the author and not representative of The Ohio State University or any of its affiliates.