Tuesday, May 23, 2006

Leadership by heuristics or empirical research ?

Leadership has been studied from various perspectives. The first recorded approach to leadership was embedded in traits. It was believed that leaders are born not made, "Kings are born, not made", it was said. "Greatness is in the blood", was commonly believed. Several views on leadership emerged as our civilization evolved. Over the past 30 years our understanding of leadership went through a major shift. Our collective new understanding of leadership has been presented nicely by Peter Northouse. He provides a very good overview of leadership in his book Leadership Theory & Practice (LTP). Various perspectives on leadership have been acquired over time through scientific research. Northouse writes about several approaches to leadership in his book including the trait approach, skills approach, style approach, situational approach, contingency theory, path-goal theory, leader-member exchange theory, transformational leadership, and team leadership. The book presents captivating work in the field of leadership. Each approach to leadership is well cited, documented, explained and critiqued. The reader will find it easy to associate the theory with his daily practice. My favorite theory is the style approach to leadership, the famous Leadership Grid is the product of research conducted by Ohio State University and Michigan University.
Diametrically opposite to empirical research in leadership is a heuristic approach to leadership. To summarize this approach is akin to the live and learn approach, learn by your mistakes approach, and a generalize by personal experience approach. Belasco & Stayer have written an oddly titled best-selling book in first person based on these principles of leadership. Flight of the buffalo (FOTB ) is a joint venture that dives head first into experiences of running companies, heuristics of leadership, visual analogies, gut feel, earthly common sense and best practices of "leadership". The oddity of the title is explained early in the book.
The book begins with the authors' journeys into leadership and various related concepts & ideas. Amongst others ideas like intellectual capitalism, leadership vision, focus, direction, obstacles (removing them), developing ownership in employees, self-directed action & learning to be the leader (lead goose) are discussed. Every chapter is littered with short stories and a moral. There is an Aesop's Fables like feel to the book. Real-life examples are touching and real, however, if you have read Northouse's LTP previously, you can draw parallels to Belasco and Stayer's experiences. Specific leadership theories presented in LTP can easily experience the wise words the authors present. The book is enjoyable, and almost actionable. Some of the advice is basically common sense best practices in action. The writing style is patterned by "try,try again until you succeed, or decide to do things differently".
The authors introduce interesting words and concepts. I liked the word authors invented to mean the inverse of leadership - "status-quo-ship". Another favorite is the concept of "lead goose" in the "intellectual capitalism era". Good advice is provided on every page of the book, obvious common sense is prescribed often. For example, "Leaders proact, not react" is treated as a chapter, the basic premise is that leaders should prevent problems rather than solve problems. Basic management tenets are also provided for the uninitiated, Deliverable (What will be delivered ?), Measurement (How will we know it is done ?), Date (When will it be done ?), Person Responsible (Who will do it ?). The authors recommend that every employee do a process analysis by asking "what can i stop doing?" - remove obstacles. Expectation setting on staff, customers and oneself is disccussed. Henry Kissinger is cited as asking "Is this your best work?". The author(s) push for excellence through action.
I found the authors doing a good job in the area of potential and reaching it. What's the difference between those who reach their potential and those who don't ? Those who do, bring a discipline with them to every task they face. They are willing continuously to challenge themselves. They keep learning how to get better because they do not accept falling short of their potential.
This book can become suddenly interesting and intensely revealing if you decide to read Northouse's LTP first. It is the perfect anti-dote to analysis by knowledge (knowing too much, but acting too little).
But really, what is the best approach to leadership ? Heuristics or empirical ? IMO learn the theory, read about experiences (it is cheaper than having your own) then go out to the field armed with your knowledge and the experience of the authors. Practice.