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The Elusive Nature of Leadership

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In his seminal book Leadership (1978), scholar James MacGregor Burns wrote that leadership is “one of the most observed and least understood phenomena on earth” (p. 4). As many would imagine, when I share this quote in classes or seminars almost all participants agree.

Effective leadership is an elusive concept. It’s like when we are moved by an incredible actress or performer. Beyond knowing we have been moved, many find it difficult to describe why. Describing why we were moved by a performance is another level of awareness – a level with a great deal of complexity. It could be her technical skills, the story, the music accompanying the performance, the viewer’s life experience, and so forth. In the end, the performance resonates with some and not others. What moves one individual to tears has a different effect on another. In many ways, leadership is a similar construct.

The purpose of this article is to share three reasons leadership can be so elusive. In the end, if we have a better understanding of the complexities of leadership, we will be in a better position to more critically analyze the phenomenon. Ideally, we will better understand the “why” behind our perceptions of effective or ineffective leadership.

1. Scholars have a difficult time agreeing on what leadership actually means. In fact, we all do. Some scholars have compiled the many definitions in an attempt to link similarities. Yet there is no common definition. Some feel that to simplify such a complex phenomenon is an impossible task, while others feel a widely agreed upon definition of leadership is needed as the field of leadership studies evolves.

In his book Leadership in Organizations, Gary Yukl (2002), suggests that most definitions of leadership “reflect the assumption that it involves a process whereby intentional influence is exerted by one person over other people to guide, structure, facilitate activities and relationships in a group or organization” (p. 2). An important word in Yukl’s definition is “influence.”

Professor Peter Northouse and others emphasize the necessity for influence rather than coercion. In other words, the followers have a choice in the matter, and have the ability to choose to follow the leader. In Leadership for the 21st Century, leadership scholar Joseph Rost (1993) takes a similar approach and defines leadership as “an influence relationship among leaders and followers who intend real changes that reflect their mutual purposes” (p. 102).

Regardless of the specific definition, all of us construct what it means to be an “effective leader” in a different manner. For instance, some may value a leader who yields results while another may want a leader who makes them feel good. Some want both! It’s like asking seven people what makes an effective coach, teacher, mentor, or supervisor. Moreover, it’s likely the seven people would value and construct “effective” in different ways. This is an important concept for which all of us should be aware. In part, the leader needs to have an understanding of how followers value and construct effective leadership to be viewed as effective.

2. We also construct “how” to best lead others in a different manner. For instance, in the world of parenting, some feel that spanking is an effective and time-tested way to discipline children. Proponents of this approach may suggest that a little swat on the behind is a good way to shape and model a young child. Of course, others would disagree vehemently.

Another example is former Indiana University basketball coach, Bobby Knight. Some dislike his approach to coaching and view it is demeaning, belittling or unprofessional. They might ask, “Did he really need to throw a chair across the court to make his point?” Others may feel that his behavior is okay and yields results so “how he gets there” is less important. A little yelling never hurt anyone, right?

Returning to leadership, we all define effective leader behaviors in different ways. Some may not mind a “command and control” approach while others appreciate a coaching or “supportive” approach. All of us know individuals who do the “command and control” approach well but have difficulty switching to a “supportive” approach which leads to my third point.

3. Leadership is a relationship between (1) the leader, (2) the followers and (3) the context. So what does this mean? Let’s examine Ronald Reagan. President Regan (leader) was elected at a time (context) when his personal leadership attributes and his message aligned with that being sought by the people of the United States (followers). Would President Reagan be elected today? No one knows. However, based on theory and research on leadership, one thing is certain – were he to seek election today, Reagan would need to align his message with issues that mesh with our current reality and context.

Martin Luther King Jr. had a wonderful message and the ability to communicate it (leader). Had he lived 50 years earlier (context), he may not have lived in a context that would have allowed him to speak at the steps of the Lincoln Memorial.

A final example can be found in current President George W. Bush. Many would agree that his leadership style has been consistent in that he approaches leadership with the mantra “I am the decider.” After 9/11, this command and control approach seemed to resonate with the American people – his popularity was widespread. As the context changed throughout his presidency however, this approach no longer served him well.

When U.S. leaders began pushing for war with Iraq its allies began to step back. If we fast-forward to the most recent elections, the approach (in part) lost the Republican’s control of the house and senate. Same approach to leadership – different context.

Now, if some of you disagree with my last statement and view his approach as positive because he “stuck to his guns,” then we are constructing what it means to be an effective leader in different ways (see number one). That’s a reality. Regardless, the leader and his or her skills and competencies, the followers and their desires, wants and values in combination with the context of the organization, country or group in many ways determine success or failure.

In the case of Bush, success or failure is yet to be determined – was he a man who stuck to his principles or a man blind to contextual realities? This is why successful teachers, leaders, coaches, supervisors have great success in one context and not others.

The three examples I have provided are by no means a comprehensive list of why leadership is such a complex phenomenon. For example, cultural norms (see Clint Eastwood’s Flags of our Fathers and Letters from Iwo Jima) and time period are two other factors.

Some readers may wonder what are behaviors, activities, or attitudes of effective leaders? The good news is that there are several theories of effective leadership. Within those theories exist some consistent and common themes which serve as guidelines for leaders – the topic of my next article.


Burns, J. (1978). Leadership. New York: Harper and Row.

Northouse, P. (2002). Leadership: Theory and Practice (2nd ed.).Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications.

Rost, J. (1993). Leadership for the 21st Century. Westport, CT: Praeger.

Yukl, G. (2002). Leadership in Organizations (5th ed.). Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall.

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