Leadership & Dark Matter
is a product of the dark matter in the world of organizations. Like the dark
matter in the cosmos, leadership is hypothesized to exist, although its
existence can, for the most part, only be inferred from actual observable
conditions, events, and circumstances that include successful conclusion of
“leadership events.” Thus, leadership actualizes as a transactional event that
occurs between the leader and his or her colleagues. (Northouse, 2004, p. 3)
Putting the point in a different frame, teams and team work (leadership events)
are not just the best leadership strategy, they are the only leadership
strategy available to us.
A long while ago, in what seems now
like another life, I was a graduate student at The Ohio State University and
taking a class in rural sociology. The Professor had assigned a book, the title
of which I no longer remember. To tell the truth, I do not recall much of
anything about the book or the course, for that matter. Both were likely quite
good since I do remember the Professor, Howard Philips, whose teaching I respect
all these many years later.
Dr. Philips gave us an assignment
that I thought at the time was silly and high schoolish. The instruction was to
select any ten declarative statements in the book not attributed to someone
other than the author. The ten statements were asserted as true and factual
without further support beyond the context where I found them.
I do not remember what we were
asked to do with the ten statements, but do realize that the exercise was far
from high schoolish, since it had an important and lasting lesson. Over the
years and to this day, I take in any simple declarative statement with a
certain measure of skepticism, regardless of the source or context. Perhaps
that was Professor Philips' point.
Fast forward to a year or so ago. I
was making one of my periodic visits to the mental space where I seriously
question whether anyone in a leadership position actually knows what he or she
is doing. Many people do what they do extremely well; but even so, it is not
necessarily the case that they understand the whats and whys of it. I am
suspicious that they, like me, are mostly making it up as they go along.
A trip to the library, of
course. -- I confess. I have never quite gotten over being a graduate
student. I originally thought it was a temporary condition cured by graduation
but have come to understand that the condition is chronic. The best I can do is
symptomatic relief through occasional library visits.
This time, the short visit I
intended turned out to be many visits over several months. My library of choice
was BookShare.org, a library of "Accessible Books and Periodicals for
Readers with Print Disabilities." It is not in the same class as the main
library at OSU; but it is quite substantial. I discovered a good selection of books
related to leadership; and, as is my bent, I read them all. -- The only
drawback turned out to be that not all of the books were correctly paginated.
The result is that I occasionally only include the author and publication year
when appropriating the words and ideas of the many leadership experts who have
taken the time to generously share their thinking and experience.
I was interested in leadership, in
leaders, and in ideas and thinking associated with leading. Through my inquiry
process, I captured those passages that I thought declaratively stated what the
authors thought were the important aspects of leadership or were the essence of
understanding their perspectives. From my perspective, to understand leadership
and leading, all I needed to do was to synthesize the knowledge and wisdom in those
passages. I would have the answer to my question, "Does any leader
actually know what he or she is doing?"
I approached the synthesis task
like this. First, I examined each passage, looking for a declarative assertion
about leadership, leaders, or leading. I then reconstructed the text into a
third person singular statement: a simple assertion. In doing so, I used the
original language of the author, to the extent possible, while establishing the
active statement. The result generally took the form, "Leadership
is…," "Leaders are…," and so on. This means that the statements
are not quotations and should not be understood as such. They are, rather, my
interpretation of what the author intended and may or may not correctly capture
his or her intent, although I think they reasonably do. Thus, the resulting
statements should be seen as associated by me with the cited authors, but not
as necessarily accurate or complete representations of their ideas,
perspectives, or thought processes.
Hogan (2007, p. 35) tells us that
the published literature on leadership is immense, actually overwhelming, and
growing daily. New ideas and approaches are continuously coming into favor and
some even sticking. Taking a fixed-time sample, as I did, runs a high risk of
missing or simply ignoring what may be the best new knowledge or perhaps
long-existing understanding that everyone but me knows and has already
assimilated. It may be a lot like leadership itself, "Give it your best
shot, hope for the best, and move on."
Along with the sheer volume of
audio, video, and written materials about leadership, those of us who consume
large portions from the experience and wisdom of others are cautioned by Bennis
& Nanus (2003, p.19) that books on leadership are often as majestically
useless as they are pretentious, excluding those by Bennis & Nanus, one
might presume. With this caution clearly in mind, I strive to be neither
majestically useless nor pretentious but leave judgment about my success here
to others. I paraphrase the lead of Sample (2002, p. 53) who advises that we
should never become too dependent on practicing experts, taking care to
maintain our intellectual independence, never kidding ourselves that expertise
can be a substitute.
From the perspective of Kellerman (2012) Leadership
Studies as a field has never been and is not now entirely respectable, at least
not among traditional academics, who consider it more art than science, neither
rigorous nor replicable, not a suitable subject for serious study. I include
Kellerman's point of view to remind us -- you, the reader and me, the writer --
not to take our shared enquiry too seriously, because many others will not.
I conclude here that Pellicer
(2008, p. 13) is correct when suggesting that leadership mostly remains an
intriguing mystery and likewise that Maeda & Bermot (2011) are on target
when they suggest that what makes good leadership is a moving target.
Nonetheless, I also agree with Jackson & Parry (2008, p. 14) when they
point out that the significance of leadership should never be underestimated,
and with Hackman & Johnson (2009, p. 33) who assure us that leadership is a
fundamental element of the human condition, wherever society exists.
Leadership is, I think, the dark matter in the world of groups and organizations.
Let me note that I am neither an astronomer nor a cosmologist, but rely here on
Wikipedia where I learn that in astronomy and cosmology, dark matter is a type
of matter hypothesized to account for a large part of the total mass in the
universe. Its existence and properties are inferred, in part, from its
gravitational effects on visible matter. Like dark matter, leadership is
hypothesized to exist, although its existence can, for the most part, only be
inferred from actual observables.
Consider, for example, the
observations of Moorhead & Griffin (2004, p. 342) who posit that leadership
keeps the organization properly aligned with its environment, or those of
Williams (2005, p. 247) who suggests that leadership preserves and maintains
essential resources of the organization. Keeping our organizations properly
aligned with their environments along with preserving and maintaining
essential, organizational resources are definitely important and aught not be
left to chance. Given general agreement on this point, the challenge is to
specify the organizational “dark matter” that prevents these important elements
from being left to chance.
Bolman & Deal (2008, p. 343) make
what I think is a variation of the same “dark matter” point when they suggest
that leadership is not tangible, but rather exists only in relationships and in
the perception of the engaged parties. Leadership’s hypothetical reality not
withstanding, Owen (p. 132-133 and p. 164) proposes that leadership is not inert
but instead emerges from the passion and responsibility of those who care,
providing the critical focus and direction for the emergent organization. As we
see, leadership is analogous to the astronomer’s dark matter in that it
theoretically exists in and of itself but also exists as an energy capable of
causing or contributing to observable conditions, events, and circumstances. For example, Leadership,
among other outcomes, brings change and adaptability. (Feiner, 2004)
To whatever extent the dark matter
metaphor has conceptual value, it is meaningless in and of itself. As with the
hypothetical dark matter of astronomy and cosmology and its relationship to
gravity, leadership as organizational dark matter only suggests itself through
the actions and activities of people, within an organizational context. In
other words, the metaphysical nature of leadership can only be observed and
potentially understood as it actualizes in the actions and interactions of
participants in the group or more generally in the organization or community.
We observe and experience the effects and outcomes of leadership, but merely
infer leadership itself.
Bass & Bass (2008, p. 25-26)
help us grasp the actualization of leadership within the organizational
context. They report that leadership has been conceived as the focus of group
processes, as a personality attribute, as the art of inducing compliance, as an
exercise of influence, as a particular kind of activity, as a form of
persuasion, as a power relation, as an instrument in the attainment of goals,
as an effect of interaction, as a differentiated role, and as the initiation of
structure. These all represent aspects of organizational life most everyone has
observed and experienced.
Note that Bass & Bass are not
suggesting that leadership is alone associated with these organizational
aspects. For example, leadership is not the only personality attribute or the
only exercise of influence within the organization. Bass & Bass are
suggesting where we might look for leadership, but not what is leadership-like
about any specific aspect. To pick one aspect as another example, some forms of
persuasion are certainly associated with leadership, but others are clearly not.
They are instead associated with phenomena such as peer pressure, harassment,
financial inducement, and so on. How can we differentiate between leadership
and non-leadership within the various aspects of organizational life where
leadership sometimes actualizes?
Before focusing more specifically
on outcomes, I raise a cautionary flag here about the perspective of Williams
(2005) who suggested that leadership may be wholly irresponsible if its effect
is to damage the long-term viability and well-being of the organization, even
when the exercise of leadership grows from sincere moral or ethical
considerations. My point is that leadership, the organizational dark matter, is
neither responsible nor irresponsible, neither good nor bad, but is instead,
value free. By this I mean that it has no value position what so ever. Values
are associated with the consequences and outcomes of leadership but not with leadership
Expanding the point some, outcomes
may be expected or not expected, positive or negative, good or evil, but leadership
is value free. Thus, the attributes of good and bad may appropriately be
attributed to leaders, as judged in relation to the outcomes they achieve. Good
leaders get good outcomes and bad leaders get bad outcomes. Highly skilled leaders
generally get better outcomes than less skilled leaders. Even so, the quality
of an outcome is only partially attributable to the leader. Thus, good leaders
sometimes get bad outcomes and skilled leaders sometimes get outcomes less
positive than they hoped.
Consider this assertion suggested
by Walshe, Harvey, & Jas (2010, p. 167): Leadership mobilizes the search
for new ways of looking at problems and new ways of harnessing the efforts of
colleagues concerned with a problem, and reinforces the search for new
knowledge, new perspectives and new learning so that innovative ways of
addressing the problem can be found. What is the "leadership" they
posit? Mobilizing and reinforcing imply action -- "A" acting on
"b." I presume the intent is to posit that the actions and behavior
(leadership) of some people (leaders) mobilize and reinforce the actions and
behavior of colleagues in specific and intended ways. Here is the take home
point: The leadership event includes the actions and behavior of the leaders and
the actions and behavior of colleagues. The leadership event then results in
the hoped for outcome, if all goes as intended.
Bolman & Deal (2008, p. 345) make
the point concisely when they point out that leadership produces cooperative
effort in the service of purposes embraced by both leader and led. Gardner (1993, p. 1) makes the point from a slightly different perspective, asserting that
leadership induces colleagues to pursue objectives held by the leader or shared
by the leader and his or her colleagues. From either perspective, leadership actualization
requires shared action from both leader and led; it requires the complete
I think the point is fairly
concluded by positing that, although leadership is itself the dark matter of
organizational life, leadership-like outcomes require
successful conclusion of leadership events. In other words, leadership actualizes
as a transactional event that occurs between the leader and his or her
colleagues. (Northouse, 2004, p. 3)
I trust I have made the point that
organizational dark matter exists and pervades every organization, actualizing
through leadership events that may be expected or unexpected, wanted or
unwanted, good or bad. Some people are acting and behaving so as to get other
people to act and behave in ways that benefit the organization, but also in
ways that do not. Following the majority convention in the literature, my use
of the term "leadership" will now be limited to those
"leadership events" that benefit the organization, unless otherwise
specified. For example, Williams (2005) believes that leadership gets
colleagues to confront reality and change values, habits, practices, and
priorities in order to deal with the real threats or opportunities the
organization faces; and leadership gets colleagues to do something that has
never been done before. (p. 247) Here, leadership clearly refers to the
complete leadership event, with emphasis on the leader's actions and behavior.
It is helpful to briefly consider a
few types of leadership events that the experts I studied presented as
representative of good leadership and as typifying the actions and behavior of good
Influencing colleagues to achieve a common goal. (Northouse,
2004, p. 3)
Influencing colleagues toward the achievement of a vision or set
of goals. (Robbins & Judge, 2010, p. 160)
Influencing colleagues in a productive, vision-driven direction
through the example, conviction, and character of the leader. (Brady &
Influencing, shaping, and mobilizing action towards articulating
or achieving goals and playing a major role in whether and how the organization
acquires, evaluates and uses knowledge, and engages in learning to achieve
improvements. (Walshe, Harvey, & Jas, 2010, p. 166)
Integrating the various other roles of the organization and
maintaining unity of action in the organization's effort to achieve its goals.
(Bass & Bass, 2008, p. 22)
Empowering others on their journeys. (George & Sims, 2007, p.
Modifying the attitudes and behaviors of others in order to meet
shared group goals and needs. (Hackman & Johnson, 2009, p. 11)
Anticipating, initiating, and implementing change. (Bass &
Bass, 2008, p. 15)
Developing the latent capabilities of colleagues over the long
term. (Williams, 2005, p. 246)
Liberating colleagues to do what is required of them in the most
effective and humane way possible. (De Pree, 2004, p. 1)
Roles & Requirements:
Leadership is a pervasive property
of all groups, organizations, and communities, i.e., the dark matter of
collective life. Its presence cannot be directly demonstrated, but is only
inferred from the actions and behavior of people -- through “leadership
events.” What’s more, it requires some congruence between the goals of the
leader and those being led. (Robbins & Judge, 2010, p. 182) In other words,
leadership is not restricted to the influence exerted by someone in a
particular position or role; colleagues are part of the leadership process,
too. (Hughes, Ginnett, & Curphy, 2009, p. 10)
It is leader identity, leader behavior, follower identity,
sociocultural context, and organizational setting all working together
concurrently. (Jackson & Parry, 2008, p. 34)
It is not a vehicle for individual advancement, but instead is
based on a collective orientation and responsibility. (Bordas, 2007, p. 24)
It is hard work but mostly involves sharing the task and allowing
others to exert their own leadership too. (Tubbs, 2004, p. 214)
Leadership certainly refers, on the
one hand, to a certain kind of position in an organization: a leadership
position, and on the other hand to a kind of performance: behaving in a
leader-like way. (Hogan, 2007, p. 32) Leader is one of the roles in any
established group. (Gardner, 1993, p. 1) Even so, knowing where to look for
leadership – a particular position or role – or how to identify it –
leader-like behavior – still does not clarify what leadership itself is.
Bass & Bass (2008, p. 18 and
96) tell us that leadership is not passive occupancy of a position or
acquisition of a role but as a process of originating and maintaining the role
structure, i.e., the pattern of role relationships. It is a working
relationship among members of a group in which the leader acquires status
through active participation and demonstration of his or her capacity to carry
cooperative tasks to completion. Goldman (2009, p. 55) adds that leadership
sets the tone and the agenda.
Leadership & Leaders:
How leadership is understood
depends on one’s frame or focus. Leadership can be divided into two categories:
leadership as a role and leadership as a way of being. (Strozzi-Heckler &
Leider, 2007, p. 15) Bass & Bass (2008, p. 19) suggest further that leadership
is influence beyond what is due to formal procedures, rules, and regulations. Maxwell
(2011, p. 2) expands the point by asserting that leadership is influence in
that if one can increase his or her influence with others, he or she can lead
If the “leader” is put at center in
the frame, he or she is typically seen as special, as having a way of being,
whether he or she is leading others or leading his or her own life,
(Strozzi-Heckler & Leider, 2007, p. 5) and as exhibiting intelligence,
trustworthiness, humaneness, courage, and discipline. (Pockell & Avila,
2007) The leader has a discrete set of personal qualities or traits and the
ability to perform a set of complex tasks, but perhaps more so includes being
bound together with colleagues by common needs, goals, beliefs, and values.
(Pellicer & Deal, 2008, p. 21)
Leadership is much more an art, a
belief, a condition of the heart, than a set of things to do, according to De
Pree. (2004, p. 148) It is about who you are, how you act, what you do, and how
you work with others. (Hackman & Johnson, 2009, p. 34) It is a commitment
to offer one’s purposes, gifts, and talents in service to humankind. (Munroe,
2011, p. 5-6) It begins with the natural feeling that one wants to serve, to
serve first, (Frick, Senge, & Spears, 2002, p. 338) and that one wants the
significant intrinsic rewards such as seeing others blossom, knowing that with
its rewards also goes the responsibility to enforce standards of conduct.
(Hughes, Ginnett, & Curphy, 2009, p. 12)
An Unexpected Conclusion:
Bordas (2007, p. 24) reports that perspectives
on leadership are changing from an individualistic, self-centered orientation
to a we or other-centered orientation. I think the point is correct, but may
not work quite as suggested. In the 1980’s, I reviewed the leadership
literature in much the same way discussed above. An “individualistic” perspective
was more dominant then, but a “we or other-centered” orientation was certainly
present as well. I think we have seen less of a change from one approach to the
other as a gradual and persistent discontinuation of the individualistic
approach, because it simply does not work as well. Leadership in today’s
organizations is a collective effort that is far too complex to be entrusted to
a single person or even a few people within a large organization.
Perhaps more to the current point,
we have learned that leadership cannot be limited to one person or to a few
people in a large organization. Leadership is collective whether we want it
that way or not. This truth may be what mostly accounts for the “change” from
“an individualistic, self-centered orientation to a we or other-centered
orientation.” -- It works like this.
Leadership is the “black matter” of organizations and is, thus,
pervasive throughout the organization.
The potential for leadership events is present everywhere and at
all times within the organization.
The potential to initiate or participate in a leadership event is
present in each person within the organization, although some people are more
able to initiate and sustain leadership events than others.
Along with planned and intentional leadership events, unplanned
and spontaneous leadership events can and do happen anywhere in the
organization and at any time.
Along with the planned and intended leadership events initiated
by the organization’s identified leaders (formal leadership), numerous other
leadership events are playing themselves out, with that number increasing
geometrically as the size of the organization increases. Think of those events
as ad hoc leadership events.
Ad hoc leadership events are ubiquitous within the organization
and may be constructive or destructive, related or unrelated to organization
goals and purposes, limited to a few people or involving many, known to the
formal leadership or unknown, time-limited or ongoing.
Within any organization, there is a level of ad hoc leadership
chaos that is unavoidable and ongoing. A central challenge of formal leadership
is to recognize that chaos and to avoid its becoming destructively
counterproductive from an organizational perspective.
In relation to formal organization
purposes, limiting leadership to the formal leadership and to the goals and
purposes of the formal leaders would seem most desirable. Let the designated
leaders lead and everyone else fall in line as ready and willing followers.
Whether this would be desirable or not is certainly questionable. That not
withstanding, perhaps the most significant finding of contemporary leadership experts
is that desirable or not, it simply does not work.
Much if not most leadership
conversation revolves around why an individualistic, self-centered orientation
is bad and a we or other-centered orientation is good. Teams and team work are the best leadership strategies for
any organization. Putting the earlier point in a different frame, teams and
team work (leadership events) are not just the best leadership strategy, they
are the only leadership strategy available to us. Any leadership strategy
that purports to function otherwise is doomed to partial, if not complete,
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