ATD Blog

Leadership: Trends and Dead Ends

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

This is the first post in a three-part series examining leadership. (See post 2 and post 3.)

  “With each new day in Africa, a gazelle wakes up knowing it must outrun the fastest lion or perish. At the same time, a lion stirs and stretches, knowing it must outrun the fastest gazelle or starve. It is no different for the human race. Whether you consider yourself a gazelle or a lion, you simply have to run faster than others.”

— from “My Vision: Challenges in the Race for Excellence”
by His Highness Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum,
Vice President and Prime Minister of the UAE and Ruler of Dubai


There is little argument that leadership is comprised of many facets. For many, leadership is the key aspect of a manager’s job—as well as a critical component of any directing function. 

More importantly, many agree that a main role of leaders is to empower others to work toward specific objectives. Accordingly, leadership is a constant process, rather than a “product” that happens overnight. In addition, leadership is focused on making other people feel more energetic and determined to work. In other words, leadership is a “contact sport” that routinely occurs via positive social modeling and continuous learning and development. Apart from this “relationship” dimension of leadership, there is an emphasis on accomplishing purposeful tasks, improving performance, and achieving results. 

What the Research Tells Us 

International research consistently shows that investing in leadership development and management capabilities is the key to achieving sustainable organizational growth and success. Indeed, the evidence touting the value of leadership development is compelling. 

  • A major case-based European HRD research project examined learning and development (L&D) practice in nearly 200 “learning-oriented” enterprises (most employing between 500 to +1,000 employees) in seven European countries: Belgium, Finland, France, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, and the United Kingdom. The study found that it takes a learning culture to produce a learning culture, and its development could be traced to such factors as organizational leadership, a strong push for innovation in the workplace, and future learning capacity development (Tjepkema et al., 2002).

  • According to research, led by Birkbeck, University of London, about management training and development approaches in the United Kingdom, France, Germany, Spain, Denmark, Norway, and Romania, there is strong statistical corroboration for management development leading to superior organizational performance across companies of all sizes, sectors, and national location (Mabey and Ramirez, 2004).

  • Research into National Vocational Education and Training (NVET) systems in the Netherlands, Germany, France, the United States, the United Kingdom, and Japan found that NVET strategies impact both workforce upscaling and re-skilling, and are the foundation of success in the knowledge-based global economy of the 21st century (Harrison and Kessels, 2004).

  • A Harvard Business School/Hay Group research project that examined more than 100 senior teams around the globe revealed that effective teams can significantly contribute to their enterprises, yet only one in five are extremely good, while one-third are mediocre, and 42 percent are poor. The study identified “a clearly defined senior leadership team” as one of the conditions for effective operations—rather than a heroic CEO (Wageman et al., 2008).

  • Another study found that ineffective management is estimated to cost, for example, UK businesses more than £19billion per year in lost working hours. More importantly, the data showed that bad management by company directors is the source of 56 percent of all corporate failures (BIS, 2012). 

Clearly, leadership is one of the most loaded, not to mention well-established, issues in management today—whether we are dealing with a global corporation, government institution or a start-up in Abu Dhabi, London, Minneapolis, Moscow, Mumbai, Shanghai, Silicon Valley, or Toronto. And even though we have been studying “leadership” since the time of Plato, the same questions emerge: 

  • Are leaders born or made?
  • How are we doing as leaders?   

How we thought about leadership and its development, though, has changed over the years. Let’s now explore the journey of leadership. 
Trait Approaches to Leadership 

Trait approaches seek to uncover what makes a leaderin contrast to those who are not leaders. The typical assumption is that that some people simply possess the “right stuff” to be leaders, while others do not. The implication is that good leaders are, in fact, “born to lead.” These "born leaders" possess unique traits that are not equally present in all individuals. 

For example, Kirkpatrick and Locke (1991) researched the regularity of certain traits in leaders, such as:

  • energy
  • personalized vs. socialized leadership motivation
  • honesty and integrity
  • self-confidence (including emotional stability)
  • cognitive ability
  • knowledge of the business. 

The study found weaker support for other traits commonly touted as necessary leadership traits, including charisma, creativity/originality, and flexibility. 
Meanwhile, Daniel Goleman (1998) produced a meta-analysis of leadership competency frameworks in 188 different enterprises. He found that it is the “emotional” competencies—a combo of traits and abilities enabling people to work with others and lead positive change—that make an effective leader. His research found that five emotional intelligence (EQ) competencies (self-awareness, self-regulation, motivation, empathy, and social skill) were twice as significant as other capabilities, specifically: technical skills (accounting or business planning) and cognitive skills (big-picture thinking or analytical reasoning). 

Research, however, has demonstrated little consistency in these “bundles” of personal capabilities among power leaders who drive organizational performance far above the norm. 


Leadership Behaviors and Styles for Different Situations 

Along a different vein, other leadership analysts have shifted the emphasis of study from “what the leader is” to “how leaders behave.” 

For example, McGregor (1960) held that the leader determines the style they manage staff, and thereby, successively determines how the staff behaves. Leaders who buy into “Theory X” believe that people are naturally irresponsible and uncooperative, and must be rewarded or punished to add value. Leaders who subscribe to “Theory Y” believe that followers are naturally energetic, growth-oriented, and interested in being utilitarian. Though the model admittedly plays up and groups leadership behaviors along an orientation toward employees, it offers little concrete basis for action. 

Furthermore, Blake and Mouton (1964) created the “Managerial Grid,” which is based on two facets of leadership behavior: people and production. This grid then produces four leadership styles:

  1. Authority-Compliance (High on Production, Low on People)
  1. Country Club (High on People, Low on Production)
  1. Impoverished Management (Low on People, Low on Productivity)
  1. Team Leadership (High on People, High on Productivity). 

However, although this framework is significantly more inclusive (the assumption being that leadership involves learning leadership behavior) and numerous leadership development interventions have been built on it, it fails to account for events and circumstances that cannot be predicted with certainty. 
Finally, situational leadership, a contingency model by Hersey & Blanchard (1988) provides a remedy for adapting the leadership style to fit the demands of the environment. Having diagnosed the developmental level of the followers, as well as their needs, this model contends that the leader works through the four styles:

  1. Directing (telling)
  1. Coaching (selling)
  1. Supportive (participating)
  1. Delegation (empowering). 

Again, many current leadership development solutions are being designed around this model of leadership. Perhaps, though, it is time to move onto a post-heroic view of leadership that offers an L&D orientation of leaders. 
This will be the focus of my next post in this series on leadership. Stay tuned...

About the Author

Bart Tkaczyk, a Fulbright Scholar at the University of California at Berkeley, is the chief executive officer of Energizers, LLC, a strategic advisory firm. Working across industries worldwide, his executive coaching and management consulting assignments have included projects with AstraZeneca, Cisco Systems, The Estée Lauder Companies, Fluor, HP, Moody’s Analytics, and Oracle. He has published his award-winning research and thought leadership in leading business and strategic management journals in Canada, the United Arab Emirates, the United Kingdom, and the United States, including Arab Investor, Design Management Review, Development and Learning in Organizations, European Business Review, European Financial Review, Global Business and Organizational Excellence, Ivey Business Journal, Leadership Excellence Essentials, Rutgers Business Review, Strategic Change, Strategic HR Review, Talent Development, and the World Financial Review. Contact him at: or follow him on Twitter: @DrBTkaczykMBA.

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