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Our uncertain future requires new leadership

The emergence of a leader is influenced by personal traits and behaviours; situation: the nature and priority of tasks [1], a function of the specific contemporary issues; group dynamics; and organisational sociology: structure and distribution of power. This complex background to leadership has been reflected in the literature which has considered a plethora of models for leadership. The following discussion of these models offers us a framework with which to consider contemporary and future leaders.

Traditionally, leadership has been defined by traits: characteristics which have been commonly espoused and critiqued, but whose contribution to the formation of a leader, relative to external factors, is uncertain [2]. Conventionally, traits of personality, perception, intelligence or physique have been highlighted, particularly focusing on courage, integrity, perspective, flexibility, humility, vision, commitment, inspiration, cooperation, realism and organisation [1] [2]. Despite wide agreement on leadership traits, several studies exploring the presence and predictability of such traits have demonstrated that they are unable to predict potential for leadership, and have not been distinguished regularly in leaders [3] [1]. Thus theorists shifted to examine more complex traits such as transformational, motivational and adaptable capacity; and lifestyle and social contribution of a leader. The merit of these models has been recognised but not favoured [1].

Although these internal characteristics of a leader seem fundamental to the definition of a leader, situation seems more elementally relevant. Fiedler has proposed the contingency model of leadership, which contends that many leadership styles may be effective, the situation being the ultimate determinant of successful leadership [2] [4]. At the core, character and situation seem to affect a certain style of leadership; however, situation also inspires the expression of certain characteristics, thus seeming to be more fundamental. Some people exhibit leadership traits primarily, while others require situational stimulation and demand [1].

Indeed, the gradual change over time seen within many leaders affirms the role that the context plays in shaping a leader. Less specifically, the overall conditions of favourability influence the style of leadership. Times of extreme favourability or unfavourability commonly call for task-oriented, patriarchal and authoritarian leadership while times of moderate favourability call for relationship-oriented and more democratic leadership. In essence, leadership is a natural response to a need for collective action. The spectrum of leadership styles – running broadly from approaches of minimal governance, through democracy and autocracy to dictatorship – are clearly a function of personal and external influences on a leader [1]. These models offer some insight into the composition of leadership but more importantly, a framework to consider the diversity of leaders.

Broadening this definition of contextual influence from the tangible social, economic, political and environmental, we reach the dimension of group dynamics. Since the return of human societies to a more egalitarian structure – post industrial and agricultural revolution – the populace have played an important role in determining leadership style. Recent studies relate leadership to the meeting of group expectations, espousing the importance of the group [1]. This links with the concept of participative leadership which is common in organisations today [2].

Increasingly, leadership is being considered in the political and commercial setting. Here, the concept of leadership expands beyond group influence to focus on the leader’s capacity to assess the state of the organisation; to stimulate employee interest and commitment to the organisation; and to represent the organisation symbolically and practically.

These theories of leadership enable us to consider current leaders more thoughtfully. The contribution of personal, social and organisational factors to their election, style and objectives can be more clearly elucidated. Commonly there seems to be dissatisfaction with leadership, at least among one cohort of the population. This may be just a function of democratic representation – the challenge inherent in representing all parties. Perhaps it is a result of an incongruity between leader and group – an incompatibility in any of the discussed aspects of leadership. Or is there an evolutionary pre-determinant to leadership development?

Observation of other species such as insects, birds and chimpanzees suggests that at least some aspects of leadership are innate; they do not require higher cognitive capacities such as communication, appraisal, learning and conflict resolution. These evolutionary earlier forms of leadership arose from situations of social-dominance. A Darwinian argument might contend that leadership was an evolutionary development to maximize group survival. Leadership, thus, seems natural in most social species. Reflection from these origins, finds a change in leadership styles over time.

Following these traditionally dominance-based hierarchies, collaboration amongst communities of non-leaders facilitated and heralded a social shift to democratic societies were leaders were elected by public regard. Thus a system of prestige and esteem-based leadership had developed [3].

With the advent of agriculture, the populations of human communities grew and were privileged, and yet challenged, for the first time by surplus resources. Communities required someone to store and distribute this excess wealth. Leaders were privileged with this responsibility and hence greater power. This marked a trend away from egalitarianism, to increasingly autocratic and class-based societies [1].

Since these primary stages of leadership revolution, societies internationally have adopted leadership styles within a broad spectrum of authoritarianism. In many settings, the growth of a powerful middle class has demanded greater accountability and democracy.

The changing nature of leadership prompts consideration of when a new style of leadership will emerge or be required. It would be naïve to contend that our contemporary society has more problems than past societies. However, the scale and complexity of our globalised society undoubtedly challenge current forms of leadership. It seems that the continued existence of a burgeoning human population in a setting of socio-cultural differences, social and health inequalities, finite environmental resources and environmental and economic instability, demands exceptional leadership.

A shift in leadership is particularly needed on an international scale. For many years the concept of leadership has correlated with fierce advocacy and representation of a certain populace or organisation. The current era demands leadership focusing on cooperative representation. Similarly, democratic leadership has too often tended towards ‘followship’ [5]. Here leaders have commonly failed to move beyond the elemental, needs-driven opinions of the polls. Leaders must embrace and utilise the privileged leadership position – which is relatively less influenced by immediate needs – to make long-term choices.

Thus courage, insight, inspiration, lucidity and cooperation are essential in aiming for a fair and sustainable global society. In pursuit of this future, it is wise to consider the history of leadership and leadership theories. Leadership anthropology can inform our appraisal and expectations of contemporary and future leaders, enabling us to influence future patterns of leadership.

There are a plethora of factors which have influenced the development of certain leadership styles throughout history, and continue to do so today. Leadership has been and will continue to be a dynamic, complex phenomenon which will no doubt always evade a conclusive definition. Nevertheless, at this stage, confronted by an increasingly complex and broad human society, it is essential to consider if we should embrace the potential for change, inherent in the construct of leadership.

Our Uncertain Future Requires New Leadership was authored by Miss Jane W Maxwell (VIC) as part of her 2008 AFMW Leadership Scholarship

[1]     Tead O. The Art of Leadership. McGraw-Hill. 1935
[2]     Johns H E, Moser H R. From Trait to Transformation: The Evolution of Leadership Theories. Education. 2001. 04/02/09. 110:1:115-122
[3]     Van Vugt M. The Origins of Leadership.  New Scientist. 2008. 05/02/009. 198:2660:42-44
[4]     Hersey P, Blanchard KH. Management of Organisation Behaviour: Utilising Human Resources. Prentice-Hall. 1979. 05/02/09.
[5]     Thatcher, M. The Oxford Dictionary of Quotations: Leadership. Chambers. 2005. 06/02/09. 851: 36.

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