Challenges to the leadership construct


A noted management expert takes issue with omnipotent role that academicians, practicing managers, and the general public have given to the concept of leadership.

In the 1500s, people ascribed all events, they didn’t understand, to God like failing of crops, death of someone and other abnormal events.

Now our all-purpose explanation is leadership. When a company succeeds, people give the credit to the firm’s CEO. Similarly, when a company does poorly, they blame the CEO.

Much of an organization’s success or failure is due to factors outside the influence of leadership. In many cases, success or failure is just a matter of being in the right or wrong place at a given time. This point illustrated in California during the summer of 2003.California’s economy was in bad shape and the state faced a $28 billion deficit. Angry and frustrated, Californians wanted someone to blame and that someone was the state’s governor, Gray Davis. With Davis’s popularity ratings dropping as low as 21%, citizens petitioned for a recall vote on the governor. He was voted out in October 2003 and replaced by actor turned politician Arnold Schwarzenegger. In reality, Davis had little to do with the budget deficit. Most of it was due to the collapse of the craze, which had powered the state’s economy in the 1990s, and the stock market decline of 2000-02. In 2001-02, for instance, state revenues declined by nearly 17%. But Californians wanted a target for their fiscal pain and frustration, and Davis played that role. The key leadership question should have been: How is ousting Gray Davis going to close California’s budget deficit? The answer is, it wouldn’t.

In this article, we present two perspectives that challenge the widely accepted belief in the importance of leadership. The first argument proposes that leadership is more about appearances than reality. You don’t have to be an effective leader as long as you look like one! The second argument directly attacks the notion that some leadership will always be effective regardless of the situation. This argument contends that in many situations whatever actions leaders exhibit are irrelevant.

Leadership as an Attribution:

It deals with the ways in which people try to make sense out of cause-and-effect relationships. We said when something happens it is attributed to something else. The attribution theory of leadership says that leadership is merely an attribution that people make about other individuals.

The attribution framework has shown that people characterize leaders as having traits such as intelligence, outgoing personality, strong verbal skills, aggressiveness, understanding, and industriousness. Similarly, the high-high leader (high on both task and people dimensions) presented has been found to be consistent with attribution of what makes a good leaders. That is, regardless of the situation, a high-high leadership style tends to be perceived as best. At the organizational level, the attribution framework accounts for the conditions under which people use leadership to explain organizational outcomes.

When an organization has either extremely negative or extremely positive performance, people are prone to make leadership attribution to explain the performance. As noted earlier, this tendency, helps to account for the vulnerability of CEO (and high-ranking state officials) when their organizations suffer a major a major financial setback, regardless of whether they had much to do with it; and also accounts for why CEOs tend to be given credit for extremely positive financial results again, regardless of how much or how little they contributed.

One of the more interesting findings in the attribution model of leadership literature is the perception that effective leaders are generally considered consistent or unwavering in their decisions. One of the explanations for why Ronald Reagan (during his first term as US president) was perceived as a leader was that he was fully committed, steadfast and consistent in the decision he made and the goals he set. Former US President George Herbert Bush, in contrast, undermined the public’s perception of his leadership by increasing income taxes after stating categorically during his campaign: “Read my lips. No new taxes�

Following the attribution theory of leadership, we’d say that what’s important in being characterized as an “effective leader� is projecting the appearance of being a leader rather than focusing on actual accomplishments. Leader-wannabes can attempt to shape the perception that they’re smart, personable, verbally adept, aggressive, hardworking and consistent in their style. And by doing so, they increase the probability that their bosses, colleagues, and employees will view them as an effective leader.