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.