What is Leadership?
University of Exeter
Centre for Leadership Studies, University of Exeter
Welcome to the first in a series of research reports from Leadership South West, which gives an introduction to some of the key issues in the field of leadership, including what is it, how can it be measured and what impact does it have upon performance? This report does not claim to be the definitive guide to all things leadership, but rather to present some of the most significant concepts and debates to have emerged in recent years. Leadership is currently one of the most talked about issues in business and organisation. It is hard to turn on the television, open a newspaper or attend a conference without coming across numerous references to leaders, leadership and leading. A search of the Amazon.com website in Spring 2003 revealed 11,686 results for the word ‘leadership’ alone and similar searches of the Ebsco business and management publications database reveal an exponential increase in the number of published articles on leadership, from 136 in 1970-71, to 258 in 1980-81, 1,105 in 1990-91, and a staggering 10,062 in 2001-02 (an average of 419 articles per month) (Storey, 2004). The recent focus on leadership is an international phenomenon, as is increased investment in leadership and management development. In the US, for example, Fulmer (1997) estimated an annual corporate expenditure of $45 billion in 1997 (up from $10 billion one decade before) and Sorenson (2002) identified 900 college or university leadership programmes (double that of four years earlier), over 100 specialist degrees and a wide range of related activities. Similar trends are occurring in the UK and Europe. Leadership is regarded as the key ‘enabler’ in the European Foundation for Quality Management (EFQM) Business Excellence Model (EFQM, 2000) and has become a central focus for numerous other public, private and voluntary sector development initiatives. Recent years have seen centres of excellence in leadership established for nearly all parts of the public sector, including health, defence, education and police. Leadership, it seems, is increasingly becoming the panacea of the 21st Century. Amidst this flurry of activity, however, a number of concerns arise. There is no widely accepted definition of leadership, no common consensus on how best to develop leadership and leaders, and remarkably little evidence of the impact of leadership or leadership development on performance and productivity. Indeed, most initiatives appear to actively avoid addressing these issues and simply opt for the feel good factor of doing something about it… whatever ‘it’ may be! Whilst action is frequently preferable to inaction, without at least some understanding of the underlying principles and assumptions about leadership and leadership development, it is likely that action may be misguided – at least reducing its possible effectiveness and at worst damaging what was there in the first place. The intention of this report, therefore, is to challenge some of the more popularist and stereotypical notions of leadership and to offer some insights into alternative ways of conceiving and addressing the issue.
South West Regional Development Agency