The study of leadership over the last two centuries has focused on one central figure to explain success, failure, or change within organizations and society: the individual leader at the top. It started with the Great Man Theory, a 19th-century idea that asserted great men (heroes) had decisive historical impacts due to their natural attributes; think Napoleon, Rousseau, and Martin Luther. Our early assessment of leadership argued that to be an effective leader, one must possess a select set of traits.
The issue with this model, and what more recent research reveals, is that the individual leader at the top is only one of four necessary and important factors in this multi-directional social influence process we call leadership. Leadership involves a leader, those being led, the specific situation, and a particular task that must be accomplished. The leader is absolutely important. Leaders influence others by providing purpose, direction and motivation; they have the responsibility to accomplish the task and they implement change necessary to do so, but the leader is only one factor and not sufficient when considered alone. As other factors change, such as those being led or the environment they act in, the leader may have to adjust style and approach. This is the challenge with our society’s romance of past leaders. At the United States Military Academy (USMA) at West Point, for example, the campus is decorated with over a half-dozen statues of famed graduates and stakeholders in establishing the Academy. The mere existence of these stone figures inherently communicates to current cadets, “be like this man and you will be a great leader too.” Unfortunately, it does not account for the drastically changing leadership factors of those being led, the very different situations leaders face today, and ever-evolving and more complex tasks we face today.
Effective 21st century leadership requires a “shared leadership” approach, where leaders leverage and operate within teams (and teams of teams) to accomplish a mission and tasks. GEN (Ret.) Stanley McChrystal argues this in two of his popular books, Teams of Teams and Leaders: Myth and Reality. It is also critical for military units to successfully operate under the U.S. Army’s Mission Command philosophy. A shared, team approach to leadership is essential today for a few reasons: Continue reading → Shared Leadership Series: Developing Effective 21st Century Teams