Making Sense of the Leadership Literature

By Michael Maccoby

Research Technology Management; Volume 44. No. 5. September-October, 2001.

Faced with an avalanche of books and articles on leadership, how should an R&D manager make sense of them? Are there any principles of effective leadership worth learning, or are there merely some good stories about leaders that you might adapt to your own situation? I believe the answer is that both principles and stories can be useful, provided you have a framework of interpretation. Without that, the leadership literature is confusing and even contradictory. The framework I use has two dimensions. They are the context and the logic of leadership.

Context has to do with who is being led for what kind of work and in what kind of organization. Consider the difference between a foreman of craftsmen on a construction job and an R&D project manager. I once asked a group of bricklayers and masonry contractors to describe the ideal foreman. They all agreed that he demands high standards, and he can do the job himself. He knows what each craftsman does best and puts people where they will be most effective. He is clear about what he requires, and he listens and responds to workers’ ideas for improving productivity or making the workplace safer. If he has a problem with someone, he takes that person aside and the criticism remains private. He is trusted because he keeps his word and trusts people until proved wrong. Bricklayers follow this kind of foreman, he is therefore a leader. Craftsmen will come and work for him rather than someone who lacks these qualities. They will work harder and smarter, which explains why his jobs are completed at a lower cost and higher quality than the average.

This same kind of leadership also works for foremen in most manufacturing plants, provided that the workers’ jobs are clearly individualized. However, where the organization of work requires collaboration or teamwork, leaders need additional skills. This is where organizational context makes a difference. At Toyota, team leaders are chosen because they create harmony in the group. They resolve conflicts as well as teach,

These skills get closer to what is required from an R&D leader. But they are not enough. When I first studied technical companies in the 70s, R&D managers were judged mostly on their technical competence. In the 80s, they had to implement project management. In the 90s, teambuilding skills became essential. Now, R&D leaders at companies like Shell or AT&T must also demonstrate business competence. Projects have become business ventures. Furthermore, unlike the craft or manufacturing foreman, there is no way that a project leader can do all the jobs as well as the teammembers who may come together from different disciplines. He or she has to be able to integrate knowledge as well as resolve conflict and facilitate dialogue.

However, even an ideal mix of skills does not guarantee effective leadership. The organizational context, its structure, reward systems and work processes can either support or undermine leadership. For example, if teammembers are rewarded for their individual productivity and not team contribution, it becomes much harder for even the most skilled project leader to create teamwork.

Furthermore, even within the right context, the leadership skills that produce results for product development may not be the ones needed at the strategic level of the company. As I have pointed out in other articles (“The New New Boss.” Research Technology Management, January February, 2001 and “Successful Leaders Employ Strategic Intelligence”, RTM, May-June, 2001)innovative technology leaders may be low in people skills but high in foresight, systems thinking, visioning, motivating and partnering. The most effective ones like Bill Gates of Microsoft and Andy Grove of Intel partner with operational leaders who have the skills they lack.

The second dimension I consider is the logic of leadership. By that I mean the reasons why certain leadership traits or qualities should be effective. For example, why should empathy on the part of a leader get people to follow him, particularly if he is demanding a high level of performance. Suppose, one of your direct reports says he hasn’t done his work and feels bad about it. If you empathize with his guilty conscience, will that make him perform better? Or will you just be legitimizing a corrosive self-pity which may be undermining his self confidence. More than empathy, a leader needs to understand the people he leads in terms of what motivates peak performance. This will likely be a combination of intrinsic motives - challenge, learning, meaningful projects and extrinsic motives - money, recognition, opportunity to advance. It may also include coaching, encouragement and tough love.

An article by Robert Goffee and Gareth Jones in the Harvard Business Review, “Why Should Anyone Be Led by You?” (September-October, 2000) maintains that besides vision and energy, inspirational leaders share four other qualities.

  • They selectively show their weaknesses. By exposing some vulnerability, they reveal their approachability and humanity.
  • They rely heavily on intuition to gauge the appropriate timing and course of their actions. Their ability to collect and interpret soft data helps them know just when and how to act.
  • They manage employees with something we call tough empathy. Inspirational leaders empathize passionately - and realistically - with people, and they care intensely about the work employees do.
  • They reveal their differences. They capitalize on what’s unique about themselves.

But why should these qualities make a leader inspiring? Take showing a weakness. The authors hedge their recommendation by noting that the leader should reveal only a tangential weakness which might also divert attention from major weaknesses. However, I haven’t noticed inspirational business leaders like Jack Welch pointing up a personal vulnerability. George W. Bush, a graduate of the Harvard Business School must have read this article, since he has been poking fun at himself for mangling the English language. This has made him more likeable, but hardly inspirational.

The other qualities of using intuition, tough empathy and being oneself may or may not contribute to being inspirational. They seem like good qualities to have, but the authors give us anecdotes, not a compelling logic of why they would inspire followers. A problem with principles based on anecdote is that you can usually find an anecdote with a counter example. In his commentaries on Livy’s history of Rome, Machiavelli writing in the 16th century asked whether it was better for a leader to be harsh or caring. He described two Roman generals, one a harsh type like George C. Patton, the other a more caring type like Dwight D. Eisenhower, both World War II American generals. Which Roman general was more successful? In fact, says Machiavelli, both were equally good at winning battles and gaining the loyalty of their troops. The key was their consistency. They walked the talk and people knew what to expect from them.

Other theories of leadership are based on correlations between traits and some measure of success. These correlations can be statistically “significant”, meaning that there is only one chance in 20 that the correlation is due to chance alone, and yet explain only ten to 20 percent of the variance. (To calculate the percent of the variance explained by a correlation, you square the correlation, e.g. .42 = .16 or 16%) In other words, the correlations may show there is some relationship between, say, emotional intelligence and a particular measure of success, but other factors such as context may provide much more of the explanation. The correlation between certain traits and success may be strong in one organizational context but not in another. Someone who is empathic and caring may be effective managing a service organization like a hotel, restaurant, or supermarket but not an innovative development team with a tight schedule that may require someone more like General Patton who moved his troops day and night through wintry weather to rescue a trapped army in the World War II Battle of the Bulge. Typically studies on leadership do not differentiate companies according to the type of leader needed and whether they are referring to strategic or operational leadership.

This is the case with Jim Collins’ recent study called “Level 5 Leadership ” (Harvard Business Review, January 2001). Collins maintains that the Level 5 leader who blends “extreme personal humility with intense personal will ” is the type who best succeeds in leading a good company to greatness. These leaders put people before strategy. They create a culture of discipline, and Collins maintains that “when you have disciplined people, you don’t need hierarchy. ” But none of the examples Collins offers are highly innovative technology companies. They are companies that need discipline to cut costs, maintain efficiency, invest in profitable products, and get rid of the unprofitable ones. Typically, they produce consumer products like bathroom tissue and razor blades. Collins’ Level 5 leaders seem to be admirable individuals but none of them has led companies like Microsoft, Oracle or AOL which have been inspired by brilliant productive narcissists. (see my article “Narcissistic Leaders: The Incredible Pros, the Inevitable Cons, ” Harvard Business Review, January-February 2000.) Level 5 leaders are more like Warren Buffet who has brilliantly invested in and run companies that require a disciplined approach to value creation. Furthermore, Collins does not look for humble seeming CEOs who have failed to transform their companies. I have seen a few. I’ve also seen some egotistic leaders who are effective at presenting a humble face.

In selecting leaders, companies should be advised to focus on the whole person within a particular context. They should ask: What kind of individual or team of leaders are needed to fill roles in different parts of the organization? Sometimes, you find a gifted leader who does not quite fit the role requirements as they have been designed. It may prove beneficial for everyone to build the role around the exceptional person. Personality qualities such as humility and will power should always be viewed not as isolated traits but as parts of a personality system that shapes behavior in relation to values, type of intelligence and energy level. But remember, the personality system is fully understood only within a larger context including company culture, type of product and market conditions.

With this in mind, ask yourself what leadership role you should be performing. What do you need to develop in yourself to better fit that role? And does the organizational system, including its structure, measurements and incentives support that role? And if not, initiate a dialogue about how to create greater support for your leadership effectiveness. Can the leadership literature help? Yes, if you filter it through your organizational context and collect the nuggets. But beware of correlations that claim to be scientific. Psychology, unlike physics and chemistry, is based on experience as well as observation, and measurements can be elusive. You can learn best from descriptions and first person accounts if you understand their context and can trace a clear logic between principles and outcomes. Psychology can help to describe and understand leadership styles, but by itself, it does not explain leadership effectiveness, and if followed uncritically, it can be seriously misleading.

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