On Leadership….

Many organizations are over-managed and under-led. Daily routines are handled, but no one questions whether the routine should be done at all. Over time, the organization may find itself humming along efficiently, but not terribly effectively.  Outsiders begin to question the need for the organization – and a crisis in leadership ensues.  At this time of rapid social and economic change, leadership will help determine which organizations prove sustainable.   This post shares a few thoughts on effective leadership.

Dr. Robert Terry, former Director of the Reflective Leadership Program at the Hubert H. Humphrey Institute for Public Affairs of the University of Minnesota, presented six common views of leadership (and then adds a seventh) in his classic book, Authentic Leadership: Courage in Action.  The six common views of leadership are are follows;

  1. The first is called the trait theory. There are “born leaders” – like John Kennedy, Abraham Lincoln, Thomas Jefferson, and perhaps Barack Obama.
  2. The second type of leadership is called situational. Leaders respond to the situation – the war years “created” George Washington, Winston Churchill, and FDR. The “times create the man or woman.”
  3. The next leadership theory is called organizational. In this view, leadership is a function of position or rank in a hierarchical structure. This type of leadership is functional in many corporations, universities and of course the military.
  4. The forth view is the power theory, which suggests that position in a hierarchy isn’t as important as the ability to stimulate action. We all know people who passively occupy positions of authority, while people without impressive titles make things happen.
  5. Terry’s fifth type is called visionary. Leadership understands the past, scans current trends and helps point people toward a meaningful future. The visionary leader always asks the question “where are we going?”
  6. The sixth view, the ethical assessment theory, is also visionary, but it is a vision that involves ethical reflection. This leader not only asks “where are we going?,” but also asks “why are we going there?”

Terry believes that each of these six views of leadership is important, but incomplete. He proposes a seventh view that is a combination of all the others, which he calls the theory of fulfillment. In Terry’s view, leadership is exercised when people organize to engage and fulfill the needs of the people in the institution, while serving the mission and working toward a shared vision.

Terry’s seventh view is that “leadership is a particular kind of social and ethical practice. It emerges when persons in community, grounded in hope, are grasped by unauthentic situations, and courageously act in concert with followers, to make those situations authentic.”

I’ll restate the seventh view with some explanations in parentheses; “…leadership is a particular kind of social ( we are people in communities) and ethical ( thinking and acting for the sake of others) practice ( leadership is doing). It emerges when persons in community ( together), grounded in hope ( things can get better), are grasped ( see and called forth) by unauthentic situations, ( something is wrong), and courageously ( it won’t always be popular) act in concert with followers ( together), to make those situations authentic ( right).

Leaders are visionaries, dreamers, idealists – with their feet firmly planted on the ground. Effective leaders nurture a shared vision within the organization. They do this by constantly acting on their vision.

I’ll conclude this essay with two examples of visionary leadership. On the day that A. Bartlett Giamatti assumed the presidency of Yale University (July 1, 1978), he sent the following memo to the Yale faculty:


In order to repair what Milton called the ruin of our grand parents, I wish to announce that henceforth, as a matter of University policy, evil is abolished and paradise is restored.

I trust all of us will do whatever possible to achieve this policy objective.


I’m sure “the abolition of evil and restoration of paradise” is indeed a worthy vision. The only problem is that it wasn’t shared. The Yale faculty were shocked and upset by their new President’s lack of decorum.

Leaders must recognize the “boundaries” of institutional vision. Warren Bennis wrote in his book, Leaders: “…vision should be projected in time and space beyond the boundaries of ordinary planning activities – but not be so far distant as to be beyond the ability of incumbents in the organization to realize.”  Bennis suggests that: “boundaries are set by the values of the people in the organization.”  Sometimes leaders don’t recognize the boundaries until they are crossed. Giamatti crossed the line his first day on the job.

The second example is a truly shared vision from a slave rebellion in 70 BC against the Roman Empire. When the Roman General Crassus told the outnumbered slaves if they turn over their leader, Spartacus, they would not be punished (remember the 1960 movie with Kirk Douglas), each of the former slaves stood up, stepped forward and shouted out to Crassus “I am Spartacus.”

Now that was a shared vision.


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