Leadership is a pet topic of almost all organizations and cultures. From the ancient Egyptians who left hieroglyphics describing the qualities of the ideal leader, to Machiavelli, Greeleaf and Drucker; the qualities, attributes, and competencies of leaders have been widely discussed, debated and analyzed. Today, leadership remains among the ‘hottest’ topics in management both in terms of research and in practice. Google the word ‘leadership’ and 20,900,000 hits are found while an Amazon search will yield no less than 71,000 books on the topic. But like most other topics in management, leadership is not straightforward. Scholars and practitioners disagree on almost everything related to the topic starting from its very definition. In fact, Stogdill in his introduction to the Stogdill & Bass Handbook of Leadership, remarked, “there are as many different definitions of leadership as there are people who have tried to define it.” For a concept that exists in some form in all known human societies; this is quite an achievement indeed! But the disagreement is not confined to scholars only; ask any three people: “what is leadership?” and chances are you’ll get at least two different opinions. The problem, of course, is that leadership is not simply a process or an attribute of the leader; to a large extent leadership is like beauty, it is in the eye of the beholder. In other words, it is not only what the leader is and what she does that defines her as a leader, it is also the followers’ recognition and acceptance of her as a leader that helps shape and delineate her role.
An additional complication is added when one considers the role of external circumstances and their effect on leadership roles and perceptions. In crisis situations, people automatically search for, and find, a leader that will help them through the crisis. Surprisingly, they sometimes turn to the most unlikely characters; to people we would normally think of as lacking in leadership qualities. However, these very same people may possess a certain expertise or ability that qualifies them for the role during the crisis and therefore, they are informally promoted to the role by the group. Naturally, this raises the question of what is it exactly that makes a person a leader: Is it his qualities and characteristics; his expertise; his competencies and skills; or his charisma? I am sure you guessed by now that the answer is not going to be either simple or clear-cut. To understand why some people are leaders and others are not, we need to understand a multitude of factors including the leader’s inherited characteristics, his personality, his physical appearance, his competencies, his charisma, the followers’ own personality, the circumstances in which he emerged as a leader, and of course, the culture in which all of this takes place.
Let’s begin with the leader. Several research studies conducted over the past decade or two have shown that leadership is indeed a function of one’s genes. However, while some people may have been given a genetic advantage over others when it comes to leadership, that does not necessarily mean that they will become leaders or that others without those genes will never become accepted leaders. The only implication of these studies is that it may be easier for some people to become leaders compared to those that have not been so favored by nature. Moreover, even with the right genes, the environment in which the person grew-up and the influence of parents also has a strong impact on whether a child will develop leadership ‘qualities’ as she grows up. Some of these qualities include honesty, discipline, integrity, and charisma. For those of you thinking also of creativity, decisiveness, or resourcefulness, allow me to disillusion you. The last three qualities are highly culture-dependent and are not universally perceived as positive leadership attributes, but we will come to that later.
Culture, of course, affects and colors our perceptions of, and reactions to almost everything we see, believe, and think. Not only does it control behaviors and attitudes, it also defines our value systems and our innermost beliefs. There’s nothing new about that, unless we attempt to evaluate our concepts of leadership in light of our national culture and suddenly, a whole new map of reality emerges – what Stephen Covey would fondly term a ‘paradigm shift.’ Over the past decade, 170 scientists from more than 61 different countries in the world have been trying to do just that and the results they have come-up with are extremely interesting. The project was initiated by a well-known leadership scholar, Robert House in 1993 and it incorporated countries from most of the ‘cultural clusters’ in the world, including Arab countries like Kuwait, Egypt and Qatar. As a transformational leadership theorist, House focused on the transformational and charismatic attributes of leaders and how they are defined and perceived cross-culturally.
Transformational leadership theories (and there are a few of them around) focus on the leader’s ability to inspire his followers to achieve results beyond even their own expectations. Transformational leaders enthuse their followers and create high-performance environments by transmitting an appealing vision of the future. Does it sound too difficult to achieve? In reality, it is not. Throughout your life, have you not come across a person, whether parent, teacher, or manager, who inspired you to excellence in something to a point that you had not previously imagined? If you answered yes, then you have experienced a transformational leader. The strength, and appeal, of a transformational leader in the business world is their ability to achieve those results without relying on traditional reward and punishment techniques and therefore, the implications for organizational performance are huge. It is no wonder that leadership theorists and practitioners have been so focused on identifying and developing transformational leadership qualities in managers and even political and social leaders. If you are wondering why you have never heard of these theories before, allow me to give you a few examples to demonstrate their popularity in the academic, practical, and even training fields. Kouzes and Posner’s Leadership Challenge is based on a transformational leadership theory; Greenleaf’s Servant Leadership is a second example as is Senge’s model of leadership in the Fifth Discipline. So what is the common theme among these three seemingly different approaches?
For starters, charisma is considered on of the most important attributes of transformational leaders. But what exactly, is Charisma? Charisma is yet another difficult concept to define – it is both a quality of the leader and an ability on her part to inspire and motivate followers. Charisma is not necessarily positive, think Hitler or Charles Manson for example, and you’ve got two examples of evil charisma! Perhaps what defines a charismatic leader the most is his vision. If you think about any Charismatic leader, evil or otherwise, you’ll realize that they believed in something so completely and so wholeheartedly, that they were able to inspire almost everyone around them with that same vision and desire to achieve it. Kouzes and Posner list the leader’s ability to develop a shared sense of vision and formulate a common goal as two of the most important characteristics of transformational leaders. They also include the leader’s ability to challenge the process, enable others to act, model the way and encourage the heart. Clearly, transformational leadership is not so much about traditional job competencies as it is focused on the personal and interpersonal aspects of leader behavior. Perhaps that is the main reason why culture plays such an important role in transformational leadership behavior and perception.
According to Geert Hofstede, one of the leading names on national culture and its effects on business and managerial practices, culture is the collective programming of the mind. It operates in the same manner that a computer program works in the background, controlling everything the computer does and processes. At the human level, our national culture will have a powerful effect on everything we say, do, or believe. As the world globalizes and we are exposed to other cultures, we may also assimilate some of their beliefs and values. However, this is quite a lengthy process that may take years, if it happens at all. Some scholars will argue that even when this does happen, it only happens at the outermost layers of culture but not at the deepest levels (values). For example, does eating Chinese food make us Chinese or listening to American music make us American? Of course not… so while we have developed a taste for some of the cultural manifestations of other nations, we remain, at heart, the same. The debate is by no means concluded. However, the importance to us here is not whether we are becoming more alike (due to globalization) or whether culture shall always remain a differentiating characteristic of nations. The question is whether culture has any effect on how we perceive different leadership behaviors.
The GLOBE study initiated by Robert House provides some interesting insights. Due to the very large scope of the study, it would be impossible to discuss all the implications here, so we focus instead on the GCC region and some of the more general findings. To begin with, the GLOBE study classified hundreds of attributes of leaders in three categories: Universal positives, universal negatives and culturally contingent. Some of the universally positive attributes include trustworthy, informed, dependable, intelligent, dynamic, honest, and a team builder. On the other hand, loner, irritable, egocentric and ruthless were considered by all 61 cultures to be negative while ambitious, cautious, logical, sensitive, and compassionate were culturally contingent. In other words, the last attributes were viewed as positive in some cultures and negative in others. In the GCC region, the attributes that were perceived as positive leadership traits included integrity, vision, diplomacy, collaboration, inspirational ability, performance orientation and administrative competence.
At one level, transformational leadership seems to be universal since in almost every study it was found that employees preferred a transformational style of leadership. Moreover, almost all studies found a positive relationship between transformational leadership behaviors and productivity, motivation, organizational performance and job satisfaction to name but a few of the factors that were investigated. The message to managers worldwide is clear: transformational leaders achieve better results. More recently, I completed a study aimed at evaluating the desirability and prevalence of transformational leadership behaviors in the GCC region and the results were, in most aspects, in perfect agreement with those of the GLOBE study. GCC employees do prefer more transformational behaviors and react more positively to these attributes and behaviors whilst they least-preferred leaders that ‘let them be’ or completely detached themselves from the leadership and managerial process. Interestingly however, it was also found that as the managers’ age increased, the less inclined they were to involve themselves. Female managers were slightly more transformational than their male counterparts and the larger the organization, the less likely the managers were to be transformational.
For both leaders and leadership development professionals, the cultural element must be taken into account despite being largely ignored. Hofstede, Drucker, Trompenaars, Adler and House all agree that managerial theories and practices developed in one nation cannot be effectively transplanted to another culture. Hofstede has shown that even at the most rudimentary levels, these theories can, and will be, challenged. Take Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, for example, which is perhaps one of the most commonly-used motivational theories in the world. On one hand, the theory was never empirically substantiated since its inception; no one was able to validate the theory through empirical findings. On the other hand, most researchers that have investigated Maslow’s infamous pyramid found distinct differences among respondents from different cultures. In the most recent study investigating Maslow’s theory in the GCC region, Al-Meer found that GCC employees placed self-actualization at the top of the pyramid in accordance with Maslow’s original theory, however, it was followed by the needs for security, social and esteem in direct contrast to Maslow’s pyramid which placed esteem as the second-highest need, followed by the desire for social acceptance and security. However, Al-Meer findings should be viewed cautiously since other scholars have come up with different hierarchies and his results are therefore not conclusive. Nevertheless, it does serve to highlight the fact that no theory should ever be taken at face value.
So what do all theories and scholarly findings have to do with reality anyway? They are but theories that have absolutely nothing to do with our every-day jobs… right? Wrong! While I agree that in isolation, theories seem to exist in a separate, and sometimes inaccessible, dimension; they do provide us with the foundation upon which we operate whether we know or it or not. Abraham Maslow, whether substantiated or not, has had a profound effect on motivational practices and guidelines throughout the world as evidenced by the widespread knowledge and use of his pyramid. But to take his theory and teach it without any reference to the numerous empirical studies conducted since he first proposed his hierarchy is an inaccurate portrayal of reality. Theories and research are the bread and butter of academicians and scholars, but they are also extremely valuable to us as practitioners as they serve to provide us with the most up-to-date information in the field which is our bread and butter. To disregard them with a casual shrug and a casual comment is an injustice both to ourselves and those we affect. Understanding and accepting any management theory, should be tempered with two factors: an understanding of the contextual variables that affect these theories and secondly, a thoughtful consideration of the surrounding research of the theory. Only when theory and practice are aligned both in our minds as practitioners and with the environment in which we operate, will they succeed and prove effective.