Friday, February 24, 2006

Redefining Leadership

Leadership studies have always generated lot of interest in organizations. In a new Harvard Business School working paper, three experts on organizational behavior revisit the meaning of leadership. Most scholars (not to mention boards of directors) gauge the effectiveness of leadership almost exclusively through a lens of economic performance, specifically return on investment, say professors Joel M. Podolny and Rakesh Khurana, and doctoral student Marya Hill-Popper. Yet the focus on economic results usually gives a one-sided picture of what leaders can accomplish.

In a fascinating interview they talk about the various factors which have influenced the leadership research in the recent years.

The link between leadership and meaning-making has been lost. Most contemporary organizational researchers—both those who advocate the study of leadership and those who argue that it is of little value—talk about leadership almost exclusively in terms of its impact on economic performance.

There are a number of reasons why the leadership literature has been recast so that it is solely focused on economic performance, but we believe probably the most important thing is that the obsession with shareholder value beginning in the 1980s led organizational scholars to assume that the relevance of all aspects of organizations is circumscribed by their impact on financial results. The social impact of organizations essentially took a back seat.

On the aspect of role of leadership :
First, leaders make architectural choices—how to structure the organization, design jobs, and allocate roles and responsibilities—that shape how people who work in the organization experience their jobs.
Second, leaders engage in symbolic actions—through the stories they tell, the symbols and rituals they create, and other highly visible actions. The leader is both architect and visionary, and both roles impact on the meaning individuals experience through work.

They expect that the meaningfulness of leadership work will be strongly impacted by:

The leader's willingness to uphold organizational values especially when there is some perceived economic cost to doing so. (If values are violated when there is a perceived benefit in doing so, they are little more than guidelines and thus likely to be the object of suspicion and derision.)
The leader's willingness to make sure (through design and training) that each individual's positional assignments fit their conception of self and their aspirations.

The leader's willingness to commit her own time and organizational resources to ensuring that each individual understand how his or her own actions link up to the larger organization's purpose.

The time and attention that goes into hiring and retaining those individuals who derive personal meaning from the organization's values and purpose.

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