Theoretical Framework for Studying Leadership in Organisations

Published: 2023/07/05 Number of words: 2787

Constructing a theory of leadership requires close consideration of what “leader” and “leadership” means within a specific context (Alvesson, 2011).  Indeed, the task of constructing a comprehensive general theory of leadership has been attempted, but has proved unsuccessful (Sorenson et al., 2011).  Studies on leadership have been conducted at various societal levels and from various perspectives within these levels.  As a result, leadership is differently defined in order to study it from these different vantage points.

The purpose of providing a definition of leadership in this section is not to define leadership in a general or comprehensive way, but rather to focus the research within certain conceptual limits and also to distinguish this research from related concepts such as management.  This outlines an attempt at distilling a working definition of leadership from the various bodies of literature.  Both classic and contemporary definitions of leadership were considered for this purpose.

Like leadership, management is a concept that is differently defined within different contexts. Furthermore, an element of overlap between concepts is also evident when considering definitions from management literature.  What seems to be consistent, however, is that leadership and management are two distinguishable organisational functions which both use power in some way.  Tripathi and Reddy (2008) claim that little consensus exists among management scholars regarding a unified definition of management, but they offer a selection of definitions from different sources instead:

“A manager is one who contributes to the organisation’s goals indirectly by directing the efforts of others – not performing the task himself.” – p. 2

 “Management is a process consisting of planning, organising, actuating and controlling, performed to determine and accomplish the objectives by the use of people and resources.” – p. 2

 “Management involves the act of achieving the organisation’s objectives.” – p. 3

Worded differently, but similar in that they all focus on objectives, management as a concept seems less concerned with the person and more concerned with tasks.  The second definition further refers to the “use of people” which could imply an instrumentalist view of employees as nothing more than objects to be used as organisational resource.  This view of what management is (as opposed to what leadership is) can also be found in Zaleznik’s (1977) clear differentiation between the two concepts.  Key to Zaleznik’s distinction between management and leadership is the difference in the nature of the relationship between managers and their subordinates and those between leaders and their followers.  According to Gabriel (2011) the differences in these relationships can be examined on four levels.  These differences are juxtaposed in Table 1.

Table 1: Difference between managers and leaders

Seek order and regularitySeek change and improvement
Value efficiency and reducing wasteAllow waste for the sake of change
Focus on details and eliminates uncertaintyFocus on a broad and general future
Consider logic and rationalityConsider emotions and intuition

Adopted from Gabriel (2011)

Albeit somewhat idealistic, from Zaleznik’s- (1977) and subsequently Gabriel’s (2011) distinction between management and leadership, we can deduce a functional and relational difference.  Managers focus on boundaries and compliance and as a result need to maintain a somewhat clinical relationship with subordinates.  Leaders on the other hand focus on vision and innovation and therefore need to establish and maintain relationships based in emotion which would sustain those relationships.

Viewing the differences between managers and leaders from a functional perspective seems to lead to this simplistic divide between concepts. However, considering how power is used and the nature of relationships between leaders/managers and followers/subordinates might offer a more fluid view of the differences between managers and leaders.  This would then also allow for a person to move between management/leadership roles and for those roles to overlap. For example, according to Nye (2010), leaders might use power to attract and persuade, whereas managers might use power to reward and punish.  What is of key concern for this research, is what power the position of the leader/manager and follower/subordinate allows, as well as what use of power would be legitimate or appropriate within a specific context.

Leadership entered into scientific study early in the 20th century (Yukl, 2012) and Stogdill (1981) summarised some of the definitions used in the study of leadership.  His summary of the core ideas behind leadership research can be divided into two broad categories and is shown in Table 2.

Table 2: Summary of 20th century definitions of leadership

Key ConceptExplainedKey ConceptExplained
Personality TraitsLeaders possess personality traits different from that of their followers. Leaders, by utilising distinguishing personality characteristics, are able to direct the efforts of others.Group ProcessLeadership occurs within, and as a result of, group processes.  Based on the needs of the group, leadership will direct effort towards a desired outcome.
BehaviourLeadership is characterised by the manifestation of a set of behaviours.  Such behaviours relate to coordinating the work of others.ComplianceLeaders have the ability to maintain compliance from others.  This compliance is related to pre-determined norms and does not consider group needs and wants.
PowerLeadership is regarded as a form of power within a group setting.  As a member of a group, leadership occurs when group members acknowledge the right to prescribe group behaviours.InfluenceIn an organised group, common goals are achieved through direction of activities by systematic influence of a recognised leader.
Structure / RoleLeadership implies the creation and maintenance of structured roles.  Leaders are tasked with the creation of social/group roles and the maintenance thereof.PersuasionLeadership implies the ability to persuade others.  Persuasion is directed towards a goal, but does not imply the coercion or strict direction of others.
GoalsLeadership occurs when one’s actions are aimed at, or result in, group goal attainment.
InteractionLeadership only occurs through group interaction and the acknowledgement that leadership may occur in the group dynamic.
Social RoleLeadership is a defined social role with certain expectations.  Leadership occurs in a social setting when an individual is elevated to leader ‘status’ and certain expectations are made of him/her.

Adopted from Stogdill (1981)

Stogdill’s (1981) summary of vantage points from which leadership has been studied reveals that leadership had either been approached from an individual process or group process perspective.  In the years that followed, leadership has been studied from more focussed points of theorising.  The literature does not reveal any sort of consensus as to which of these theories are the most appropriate, however, some broad “category” consensus does seem to exist across theorists. For example, DeChurch et al. (2010) propose that leadership studies can be grouped into six categories, namely trait leadership-, behavioural leadership-, leader-member exchange-, transformational-, strategic management- and shared-leadership approaches.  Bolden et al. (2011), however, explain that leadership studies can be divided simply into the three main categories of leader-centred, relational and social process orientations, with eight sub-divisions, while Grint (2011) states that a historical review of leadership texts reveal an evolution from the “Great Man” theory to contemporary approaches such as “Distributed Leadership”.  These approaches are comparatively summarised in Table 3.

Table 3: Summary of leadership research approaches

Categories proposed by DeChurch et al. (2010)Categories proposed by Bolden et al. (2011)Categories proposed by Grint (2011)
Trait approachLeadership as a property of the leaderTraitGreat Man  approach
SkillsScientific Management, Taylorism, Fordism
Behavioural approachBehaviouralHuman Relations, Traits, Charisma
SituationalContingency theory, Systems Analysis, Self actualisation
Leader-Member-Exchange approachRelational approachLeader-Member-Exchange approach
Transformational Leadership approachTransformational Leadership approachTransformational Leadership, Corporate culture, Quality circles
Strategic Management approachCompetencies, Benchmarking, Psychometrics
Servant Leadership
Shared Leadership approachSocial process approachShared Leadership approachDistributed leadership, Followership, Identity
Discursive and Constitutive Leadership approach

Barnard (1997), however, insists that leadership exists as a function of [at least] the interaction between leader, followers and conditions.  Therefore, what seems to be lacking from Stogdill’s (1981) compilation of definitions is due consideration for the conditions within which these supposed individual and group processes are embedded.  If “leadership” has different meaning across different contexts (Alvesson, 2011), then both organisational and societal factors deserve consideration in the study of leadership.  A more contemporary definition of leadership seems to address the notion of “conditions”:

“Leadership fundamentally involves meaning-making.  Real change (from point of a current situation to a desired situation) involves influencing the meaning that different groups make in the context of competing and conflicting definitions of reality and value.”

– Sorenson et al. (2011), p. 33

In the proposed definition of what leadership is, of particular interest is the idea of “meaning-making”.   Numerous definitions of leadership cite an influence on behaviour of followers towards a common goal.  However, these definitions are flawed in assuming that followers share the leader or organisation’s goals or objectives, which might not necessarily always be the case.  Some examples include:

“Leadership occurs within a group with common goals and differentiated responsibilities.”

– Stogdill (1997), p. 115

 “Leadership is an influence relationship among leaders and followers who intend real changes and outcomes that reflect their shared purposes.”

– Daft (2011), p. 5

 “Leadership is a process of social influence to guide, structure and/or facilitate behaviours, activities, and/or relationships towards the achievement of shared aims.”

– Bolden et al. (2011), p. 39

What these definitions do highlight, however, is an understanding of the leader as an influential meaning-maker.  Indeed, it is said that leaders are the source of meaning which in turn gives purpose to efforts through shared values, priorities and beliefs (Andreski, 1983).  Leaders, it can also be said, then create order and a compelling vision for the future of an organisation through the creation of meaning (Morrill, 2007).  Podolny et al. (2010) propose a framework to studying leadership alongside the concept of creating meaning which resonates with the earlier discussion about the differences between management and leadership.  According to their framework executive behaviours and activity which lead to organisational performance but do not do so by giving meaning to activities or interactions can be considered as “management”.  Conversely, executive behaviours and activities which lead to organisational performance by creating meaning can be considered “leadership”.  This performance then also feeds back into and enhances the creation of meaning for those belonging to the organisation.

Within the context of leaders creating meaning, meaningful action can be separated into two main components. First, an action can be considered meaningful when it supports an ultimate end which the individual performing the act values.  Secondly, an action would be considered meaningful if it affirms the individual’s connection to the community they feel a part of (Podolny et al., 2010).  The alternatives to organisational management creating meaning is either to assume common goals between leaders and followers in organisational activities, or to use a purely “good management” approach which disregards relationships and focuses on simply compliance and the completion of tasks.  According to Parker (2005) however, the notion of “leadership as good management” is insufficient for a post-industrial era as this focuses too much emphasis on goals and outcomes – which could be problematic since not all goals, aims and outcomes may be shared among follower/subordinates.  Such an approach is therefore insufficient in a rapidly changing and challenging post-industrial economy.  The importance of creating meaning is also emphasised by Weber’s (1922) assertion that the routinization of work in modern hierarchical organisations neutralises the very drive and values that created the organisation in the first place.

All organisational activities, regardless of being with or without meaning are embedded in a broader societal framework.  How leadership is perceived and enacted will influence and be influenced by this societal framework.  For the purposes of this research, after mining the literature for definitions of leadership and management and also considering how these concepts relate to power, meaning, relationships, gender and race, the following working definition of leadership was developed:

Leadership is a social process that takes place by facilitating and asserting the power of organizational practices, social norms, networks and purposeful relationships between organizational members in order to create meaning and influence the activities of the members. Organizational activity and significance are embedded in a broader social framework. Leadership is perceived as passing, influencing and influencing the framework.


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