NZIM: William Rosenbach on The Essence of Leadership

Professor William Rosenbach is Evans Professor of Eisenhower Leadership Studies and Professor of Management at America’s Gettysburg College. His research focuses on leader and follower behaviour, the effectiveness of leadership development programmes and the relationship of transformational leadership to organisational culture, participation, and change. Dr Rosenbach was in New Zealand recently, hosted by the New Zealand Institute of Management and speaking at Wellington seminar.

NZIM: Why is leadership recognised as key factor in our economic development but does not seem to be understood?

WR: Leadership is widely discussed and studied but it remains an elusive and hazy concept. The study of leadership has emerged as legitimate discipline, but there is still little agreement about what leadership really is. There are almost as many definitions of leadership as there are people attempting to define it. The definitions are often bounded by the academic discipline or the experience of those attempting definition.

In 1984, Pulitzer prizewinner James MacGregor Burns wrote that we know lot about leaders but very little about leadership. However, Walter F Ulmer, Jr, former president and CEO of the Centre for Creative Leadership, believes that we know more than we used to about leaders, but much of our knowledge is superficial and fails to examine the deeper realms of character and motivation that drive leaders, particularly in difficult times.

To begin to understand what leadership is, it is worthwhile examining what it is not. Leadership is not hierarchical, top-down, or based on positional power and authority. While effective managers must practise good leadership and effective leaders must possess managerial skills, leadership is not management or some principle of it.

To understand leadership, we need to understand its essential nature. It is the process of the leader and followers engaging in reciprocal influence to achieve shared purpose. Leadership is all about getting people to work together to make things happen that might not otherwise occur, or to prevent things from happening that would ordinarily take place.

NZIM: You discussed two basic types of leadership in your Wellington seminars, can you explain them for us?

WR: The first is transactional leadership. It clarifies the role followers must play to achieve both the organisation’s desired outcomes and to obtain personal rewards for satisfactory performance, giving followers the confidence necessary to achieve those outcomes and rewards. Transactional leadership is the equitable transaction or exchange between the leader and followers whereby the leader influences the followers by focusing on their mutual self-interests. The self-interest of the leader is satisfactory performance and the self-interest of the followers is valued rewards gained in return for good performance. Used appropriately, transactional leadership results in good performance. Transactional leadership is simply good management and might be considered managerial leadership.

The second is transformational or transforming leadership and it involves the followers’ strong personal identification with the leader. The transformational leader motivates followers to perform beyond expectations by creating an awareness of the importance of mission and the vision in such way that followers share beliefs and values and can transcend self-interests and tie the vision to the higher-order needs of self-esteem and self-actualisation.

Transformation leaders create mental picture of the shared vision in the minds of the followers through language that has deep meaning from shared experiences. They are also role models in their daily actions. They set an example and give meaning to the shared assumptions, beliefs, and values.

Transformational leaders empower, or better yet, enable followers to perform beyond expectations by sharing power and authority and ensuring that followers understand how to use it. They are committed to developing the followers into partners. In the end, transformational leaders enable followers to transform purpose into action.

NZIM: Can leadership be taught?

WR: That it is the wrong question. more relevant question is: “Can leadership be learned?” The answer is resounding yes!

The potential for good leadership is widely dispersed in our society, not limited to privileged few. Learning about leadership means learning to recognise bad leadership as well as good. Learning about leadership involves understanding the dynamic relationship (that exists) between leaders and followers; recognising the differing contexts and the leadership landscape; understanding the importance of the behavioural sciences, biography, the classics, economics, history, logic, and related disciplines, all of which provide the perspective important to leadership effectiveness.

Individuals committed to improving their leadership effectiveness should try to improve their skills as speakers, debaters, negotiators, problem clarifiers, and advocates. Most important, the developing leader learns to appreciate her or his own strengths and weaknesses.

Colin Powell’s response to student who asked how best to prepare to be an effective leader was to advise the student to study past and present leaders but not get too “hung up” on role models because they need to be authentically themselves and to learn from their own mistakes. “What you learn after you know it all is what really matters.”

NZIM: What should be leader’s style?

WR: What leaders do is important, but how they do it is of equal concern. Although much research has focused on identifying the one best style, no single style or personality is best for all situations.

The leader acting alone can often accomplish relatively simple tasks, but the more ambiguous and complex the situation, the greater the need for participative style. Participatory decisions, however, are time consuming; the path to consensus is often long and tedious. So timing as well as situation are involved in leadership style. When decisions must be made quickly, the leader must act alone with available information and, very often, intuitively.

Successful leaders are globally oriented. They must understand the microcosm of their organisation and where it fits in the larger (global) perspective. To create vision of the future, the leader must understand the environment in which the organisation exists today and the one in which it will exist tomorrow. Leaders serve an increasingly diverse constituency and must seek and value that diversity to transform their vision into action.

According to Thomas Cronin, students of leadership must develop their capacities for observation, reflection, imagination, invention, and judgement. They must also learn to communicate and listen effectively and develop their abilities to gather and interpret evidence, marshal facts, and employ the most rigorous methods in the pursuit of knowledge. They need to develop an unyielding commitment to the truth, balanced with full appreciation of what remains to be learned. Students of leadership learn from mentors who lead by example and who make desirable things happen.

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