Psychologists are finally getting around to studying leadership

January 21, 2007 6:31 pm Published by

I just received the 2007 January edition of the American Psychologist, which is the flagship journal of the American Psychological Association. This whole edition is dedicated to the topic of leadership. This fact, in and of itself, is amazing.

As Robert Sternberg, one of the foremost research psychologists on leadership states in the foreword:

“The United States became a great nation because of the leadership skills of the Founding Fathers. . . Historically, great nations have risen and later fallen in large part as a result of the success or failure of their leadership.”

“Despite its importance to the United States and the world, leadership has not been a leading topic in the field of psychology. . . leadership is scarcely to be found as a topic of research. . . Even the American Psychological Association has no journal on leadership and no division on leadership.” As a psychologist who works in the area of leadership, these are embarrassing facts to me.

Given that most of you don’t have access to this journal, I would like to share some of the insights of some of the psychologists who have studied leadership.

Warren Bennis, from the University of Southern California, writes the introduction to the whole issue in an essay entitled: “The Challenges of Leadership in the Modern World.” I am going to pull out some of the most interesting (to me) comments he makes. He states:

“[L]eadership always matters, and it has never mattered more than it does now. . . (but) psychology still does not know enough about how they develop and how they recruit and maintain their avid followers.”

“People have tried to understand leadership by attempting a kind of reverse engineering of outstanding public figures. To this day, psychologists have not sorted out which traits define leaders or whether leadership exists outside of specific situations.”

“In talking about leadership, we must ask ourselves, “Leadership for what?” . . . Any person can aspire to lead. But leadership exists only with the consensus of followers . . . (in fact, the only person who practices leadership alone in a room is the psychotic.)”

“Leadership . . . is a tripod – a leader or leaders, followers, and the common goal they want to achieve.”

“One aspect of leadership that is routinely overlooked is the extent to which it is a performance art. . . rhetoric is part of the equation. . . [Leadership also involves] media and communication. Today public leaders rarely, if ever, interact with their followers directly. They are always filtered through the media. . . We must also think about leadership in the context of globalization and instant communication.”

“After studying leadership for six decades, I am struck by how small is the body of knowledge of which I am sure. . .(but) I believe adaptive capacity or resilience is the single most important quality in a leader, or in anyone else for that matter who hopes to lead a healthy, meaningful life.”

“And I believe all exemplary leaders have six competencies:
*they create a sense of mission,
*they motivate others to join them on that mission,
*they create an adaptive social architecture for their followers,
*they generate trust and optimism,
*they develop other leaders, and
*they get results.”

“I am convinced more than ever . . . that the four most important threats facing the world today are:
(a) a nuclear or biological catastrophe, whether deliberate or accidental;
(b) a world-wide epidemic;
(c) tribalism and its cruel offspring, assimilation; and finally,
(d) the leadership of our human institutions.

Without exemplary leadership, solving the first three problems will be impossible.”

Some pretty strong comments at the end.

The remainder of the articles in the journal summarize the research in psychology on various approaches to understanding leadership, including:
*Trait-based perspectives on leadership
*The role of the situation in leadership
*Promoting more integrative strategies for leadership theory-building
*A systems model of leadership
*Asking the right questions about leadership

I am going to read through the articles this week and see if there are any valuable thoughts or research findings. If so, I will share them.


Published by
January 21, 2007 6:31 pm

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