“Lead, follow, or get out of the way.” While it’s unclear whether U.S. General George Patton, iconic Chrysler CEO Lee Iacocca, or perhaps someone else entirely said these words, their meaning defines leadership as a narrow path that one is either on or not. However, after speaking with David Hood, PhD, who teaches at the Johnson & Wales University Denver Campus, as well as for the College of Online Education, leadership is not at all so clearly defined. Hood’s academic and professional interests are focused in this area. In anticipation for the launch of the online MBA - Organizational Leadership degree in fall 2018, he shared his thoughts on the topic and challenged some common notions of what it means to truly lead.
Most of the time, leaders are thought of as the men and women at the top of the organization. How would you define a leader?
I believe that the notion that leaders are typically only at the top of an organization comes a lot from our past. In previous generations, organizations were designed in a less egalitarian way than what we see today. During the industrial revolution, the owners of a company were the leaders, and nearly all employees were there to perform a task—and be thankful for the “leaders” to be offering them an opportunity to work for payment. Also at this time, leadership was not as widely discussed, researched, or thought of because I feel we lacked mass education and did not have a proper understanding of the differences between management and leadership.
Post-industrial revolution brought the awareness of organizational design, and organizations were studied by the likes of Weber and Drucker. Max Weber brought to the US the concept of bureaucratic structure that essentially mandated: Every individual in an organization has a task to perform, with no need to perform duties outside of that task. With that being the most popular design for medium- to large-size firms of that era, there was no real need for leadership because you simply did what you were tasked with and left (if you didn’t, you were fired). But, as the public became more educated, more people learned of a pyramid structure in nearly all facets of ours and other societies (families, church, sports, government, war, royal families, etc.). Meaning, it was more widely perceived that at the top of this pyramid was a driving force/figurehead explaining why we were doing what we were doing.
This wider understanding ushered in the belief that some voices were more reasonable and powerful than others, based on the knowledge that was being consumed and the ability and/or willingness to find new knowledge. These “reasonable and powerful voices” were typically at the top of a social hierarchy and, therefore, I go back to where I started and suggest that as a result of how our society has been shaped over the years we have been told to look up instead of down and sideways for leaders.
But, I do see that changing. With the advent of social media, we are now able to express our thoughts and enthusiasm for a certain viewpoint at breakneck speed. Because of this, I do think there is a shift in how we see leadership. For example, we recently learned of the great work that the survivors of the school shooting in Florida are doing, mostly through social media. I unequivocally suggest that these students are leaders ... the question now is, were they always leaders? And yes, I do believe they were, based on their enthusiasm, charisma, and persistence. The unfortunate part of their story is that they were tragically thrown into a leadership role, based on their circumstances, giving them followers from all walks of life, which have shared beliefs about a horrific event. These students, to my knowledge, are not CEOs or lawyers or politicians—they are students who are passionate about a cause and are using the tools of our times to lead a movement based on what they feel is right or wrong.
What are the common traits of successful leaders?
I am not sure there can—nor should there be—a list of “common traits” of successful leaders. Being exposed to a variety of leadership research, theories, and case studies, both in class and in the real world, I am fond of the saying, “Leadership is situational.” To simplify leadership into a list of do’s or don’ts would be wonderful so we could somehow figure out a way to teach those traits or raise children with those traits in mind. However, we have yet to perfect a list like that, as I do feel leaders are born out of circumstance—there is a need, and the leader steps in.
There is a great deal of leadership research happening right now that would suggest previous definitions of leadership, which explain that all leaders must have followers, are incorrect. Understanding that leadership is often doing something that is unpopular, research is now asking the question, when do we actually label an individual as a leader? In other words, is the leader born or is the leader only a leader once they have followers, following their once unpopular idea? I am not sure what side of the debate I am on here, but the Great Man theory— although poorly named—may still have some validity in answering this question. With a shift in the Great Man theories focus to be less about what a person steps into the world with (i.e. social class, royal blood, mental or physical strength, etc.), and more about whom and where they step into the world with (i.e. parents, family, community, school, money etc.).
While the above is a newer, less-studied concept I do think we should be looking at leadership research holistically and understanding that all the theories that are vetted through their respective academies, may not work in isolation like they are written. Instead, I feel that when we study leadership theories, we should be picking certain aspects of each that may work in a certain situation.
Who, in popular culture, can you point to as someone who embodies a successful leader?
This question is also challenging to answer, as an answer would likely explain a personal affiliation (i.e. politics, social class, race, personal hobbies, or interests). When most people look for leadership in pop culture, I do think it has more to do with influencers around them, than understanding fully what the pop-leader is doing to be a good leader. Not to say that people are mindless and follow those around them—I think, instead, people often have leaders around them that are followers of those pop-leaders.
So, I would suggest that it is somewhat layered in respect to finding leadership in pop culture. For example, there is a pop artist you may not have heard of but your best friend has. You listen to them and then you see that artist as a leader, but we forget that the person who introduced them to you successfully is also a leader—and possibly more influential in this example.
Can leadership be learned?
I must admit that this is a question I get a lot! I teach my classes with the belief that I can’t teach someone to act a certain way. However, I can certainly explain a factual phenomenon that has been discovered in research and then make it as real as possible. Most people I encounter are not exposed to the amount of leadership research that my peers and I are exposed to. And, they do not have to be—that is why they have people like my peers and me. I am always baffled as to why people feel scholarly efforts are just “elitist brainwashing,” as I can explain firsthand that we are not sitting in our swimming pools of cash, making up the research that we do. Instead, we are observing and connecting concepts for people to then try and relate to the real world they live in.
So, can people learn to be a leader? I think so, but they have to first understand what a leader is (beyond role, title, or placement) through study of leadership as a phenomenon, as well as observing leaders they would like to emulate. Keeping in mind that leadership is situational and extremely versatile from situation-to-situation.
What excites you about the field of organizational leadership?
Everything! I find it fascinating that we are only recently realizing that strong organizational leadership is a strategic and competitive advantage. When I speak with leaders from all areas of our society, their understanding of the environment around them is a great indicator of their leadership success. While leaders should certainly be creative and innovative, I often recognize that good leaders are self-aware and also aware of the environment they work within. Keeping in mind the restrictions of their organizational culture, known or otherwise (leaders often have a wonderful intuition), has fairly or unfairly placed on the leader.
Another fascinating aspect of organizational leadership is the idea of understanding human capital at an organization. Organizational leadership does not only look at current leaders at an organization, it also understands a need to build leadership from within and then implement a culture that retains these leaders for current and future “use.”
In considering this to be true, I feel it is important to understand the difference between a manager and a leader. These two terms mean something totally different, and while it may appear to be advantageous to be both, organizations would not function if all managers were also leaders and all leaders were also managers. If this were the case, chaos would ensue and direction, vision, and strategy may never get planned, enacted, and/or achieved. So, we can’t ask that everyone be a leader but what we do see is those who want to become/accidentally become leaders, find their “situation” and act as a leader within the organization—which brings clarity to the common phrase “in the right place at the right time.”
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