The search for the “Holy Grail” of Leadership

By Edgar Meyer

Edgar-Meyer
Prof Edgar Meyer

Much is said about the challenges we face in today’s working environment. Globalisation, pervasive technology, environmental issues, and social challenges are all adding complexity to our working lives. In addition, in the recent past we have witnessed an increasing number of corporate scandals that perpetuate questions on the viability of the macro-economic ideals of free markets and capitalism. Organisational failures have brought with them a decrease in organisational trust indices and blame is often assigned to the leaders of these organisations. Because of the visibility of such corporate failures (or the failures of the individuals at the helm of the organisations), leadership has remained a key focal point in the search for answers to these challenges.

With this focus on leaders and leadership, the popular literature for (aspiring) managers is not short of snappy, well-rehearsed articles that enticingly promise to enlighten the reader about the “Top 10 Leadership Qualities” needed to survive and succeed in 21st century organisations. This is complemented by a multitude of books recounting the experiences of ‘leaders’. These individual accounts often reach the bestseller lists of highly regarded broadsheets, recounting stories of achieving success in sports, politics, or social activism. Often these are engrossing narratives of personal journeys littered with failures, detours, and life’s lessons, ultimately culminating in some measure of success. The aim of these books is, one might assume, to inspire, share one’s lessons learnt, and deliver some tangible advice on how ‘leadership’ can be enacted. There is nothing wrong with such literature; but there are inherent assumptions: namely that ‘leadership’, as a construct, can be clearly captured and the skills, knowledge, and behaviours described can be emulated by anyone. Besides this (arguably dangerous) assumption, these texts often ignore the rich history of research on leadership over the last century (in the western world) that tried to identify what constitutes good leadership and what makes a good leader. This rich (research) history may be described as the search for the ‘Holy Grail’ by researchers in this field. The ‘Holy Grail’ stands for the potential of leadership. Practitioners and researchers alike are unable to articulate the potential power of the Grail – implicitly the assumption is that the ‘Holy Grail’ holds the secret to becoming a successful leader and creating sustainable environments.

In this search, many attempts have been made to describe and define leadership in a variety of ways – some of which are still relevant. For instance, early ideas of “The Great Man” suggest that leaders are born with particular traits that predispose them to becoming leaders. Much effort was exerted to define those traits. As expected, no conclusion has been reached and little consistent evidence exists that point to particular traits as predictors for good leadership. Indeed, more recent work suggests that traditional trait research linking leadership capabilities with personality traits such as extroversion were lacking sophistication and are not applicable to today’s complex environment. The popular book ‘Quiet: The power of introverts in a world that can’t stop talking’ (i) makes a compelling argument about the way in which we are now thinking about leadership traits.

The search for good leadership led us, as researchers, to look at the context and the situational factors in which leadership takes place. The focus shifted towards a leader’s ability to read a situation, understand their followers, and act accordingly. This work aimed to define clear paths through leadership challenges and support leaders in behaving in the ‘right’ way. Whilst this part of the search for the ‘Holy Grail’ brought us closer to understanding leadership dynamics, it only highlighted further clues on the hunt for the ultimate notion of perfect leadership. The search continued and seemed to reach a pinnacle when Charismatic and Transformational Leadership was proclaimed as the model of leadership that addresses the challenges faced by leaders in organisations. It was commensurate with the hero that leads from the front and ‘walks the talk’. It focuses on influencing, motivation, and reasoned arguments. It is possibly the most widely cited and adopted leadership approach.

However, the search didn’t end here as time has shown that being a heroic leader with charisma does not provide consistent success for organisations or in leadership. More so, a realisation set in that all of the ideas surrounding leadership have assumed a causal relationship between a leader’s actions and follower responses. The latter are seen, in most leadership ideas, as a passive recipient of leadership.

So where are we now in this search for the ‘Holy Grail’? We are continuing to seek new insights. Much of the current leadership debate surrounds the identification of the role of the follower. There is talk about the idea that leadership is a co-construction and that followers actively participate in leadership. There is a refocusing on the role of the leader as a servant to his/her followers (servant leadership). Most prominent amongst the newer ideas is the role of authenticity in leadership. Authenticity is talked about in terms of a moral stance, transparency, and self-awareness. It is an exciting idea that is gathering momentum and evidence is emerging that leaders who are considered to be authentic are likely to inspire trust and commitment in their followers.

However, not unlike the legend of the Holy Grail, it seems the search is not over yet. There are many more facets that we have not discussed that are likely to prolong this search for the ‘Holy Grail’. For instance, the jury is still out on the debate whether leaders are born or made. There is no comprehensive unified definition, as different people understand leadership differently, captured most appropriately in implicit leadership theory. What about culture? Most of the search has taken place in the Western Hemisphere. Little coherent evidence is available that suggests any relevance of our leadership ideas to the rest of the world. And so the search continues – or should the search be abandoned? Indeed, is it necessary, possible, or desirable to find the ‘perfect’ leadership style? The answer to this question eludes many of us who work in this field and only time will tell if there is a ‘Holy Grail’ of leadership or whether we accept the fact that there may be some overarching principles of good leadership but no comprehensive explanatory theory that describes the intricacies of the leader-follower dyad in every context.

 


(i) Cain, S (2012), Quiet: The power of introverts in a world that can’t stop talking’, Penguin Books, London

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