Feature Article: Theoretical Foundations of Integrative Leadership

Feature Articles / August 2008

Barbara CrosbyIntegrative leadership is an emerging leadership approach that fosters collective action across many types of boundaries in order to achieve the common good. It brings together leadership concepts and practice rooted in five major sectors of society—business, government, nonprofits, media, and community. It focuses on leadership development at all levels, from individual to global. This paper lays the foundation for an integrative leadership framework that will help leaders and researchers around the world build multi-sector collaborations to work on the toughest public problems.

To begin, the paper reviews the major streams of leadership scholarship related to the levels of analysis that the framework must encompass. The levels are individual, team, organizational, inter-organizational and community, national, and global. Along the way, the paper highlights key debates within leadership studies and notes how leadership research has been affected by a focus on different sectors.

Books and articles about leadership continue to proliferate; while the line between authentic scholarship and popular appeal is sometimes blurred, scholars have published a wealth of reputable quantitative and qualitative studies. The multidisciplinary field of leadership studies has really developed only in the last 25 years; it is still dominated by U.S. scholars, but increasingly academics and practitioners from around the world are writing about leadership from diverse cultural and organizational perspectives.

In general, the field of leadership studies has moved from a focus on leaders to leadership—that is, from individuals as leaders to the relationship between leaders and followers (or constituents, colleagues, collaborators). A related move is from the assumption that only an exceptional few have leadership potential to the declaration that everyone might become a leader, depending on preparation and opportunity. Naturally, this shift has tremendous implications for leadership development. If the focus is on the exceptional few, the job of people like me—that is, leadership educators—is to identify and recruit those exemplars and, as Bob Terry used to say, send the others to “followership” school. If everyone has leadership potential, the pool of learners is huge!

More leadership scholars today are also exploring and arguing over the moral and spiritual implications of leadership. The view that leadership is a morally neutral set of practices that can be applied for good or evil persists (Kellerman, 2004), but many scholars now place ethics and human spirituality at the center of leadership (Terry, 2001; Burns, 2003; Vaill, 1998).

Levels of Analysis

Let’s take a look at scholarship related to the different levels of analysis: individual; team; organizational; inter-organizational, community, and national; and global. Also considered will be cross-sector leadership research. No matter what the level, attention to context is important and scholars have increasingly paid attention to how social, political, technological, and economic aspects of the context affect leadership efforts and even views of what leadership is all about (Crosby & Bryson 2005; Terry, 2001; Hooijberg, Hunt & Dodge, 1997).

Individual. The longest standing stream of popular and scholarly writing flows from the effort to identify the essential traits that separate leaders from the herd. The effort has been strongly criticized because so little agreement emerged from the various studies and because until recently they tended to focus on elites (whose primary shared characteristic seemed to be white maleness and positional power). A few traits, attributes, and qualities do emerge consistently from these studies (Bass, 1990). They include energy and intelligence, though the definition of intelligence has expanded considerably in recent years—for example, attention to multiple intelligences (Gardner, 1993), emotional intelligence (Goleman,1995; Goleman, Boyatzis, McKee, 2002), and cognitive complexity (Mumford, 2000; Hooijberg, 1997).

One fairly recent stream of research has taken a different perspective on leader traits by seeking to know what followers want in leaders—for example, Kouzes and Posner’s research for their book Credibility (Kouzes & Posner, 1993; Kouzes & Posner, 2003), which emphasizes the importance of leaders being honest, future-focused, competent, and inspirational. Another growing stream that has fairly over-flown its banks is the attempt to probe leaders’ psyches—for example, exploring the narcissism and hubris likely to accompany powerful leadership roles (Kets de Vries, 1993), illuminating the disciplines of personal mastery and character building (Quinn, 2000; Luke, 1998; Manz & Sims, 1989, 2001), and liberating the “leader within” (Cashman, 1999). Some examples in this stream of writing are based on extensive research but many veer toward the anecdotal and prescriptive.

Despite the move to more democratic and inclusive views, scholars such as Jean Lipman-Blumen (1996) and Willard Drath (2001) acknowledge the persistence of interest and even demand for the great, take-charge, savior-like leader who can protect an organization or society from various ills and threats. Thus, scholars of business leadership still write a lot about characteristics, styles, and practices of CEOs (or other executives); scholars of government leadership often undertake a similar analysis of presidents, governors, prominent judges, powerful legislators, and top administrators. Scholars focusing on the nonprofit and community sectors write about the characteristics, styles, and practices of executive directors and social movement leaders.

Scholars at this level sometimes explore the overlap of individual behavior and cognition with social ethics. Jean Lipman-Blumen (2005) and Barbara Kellerman (2004) have recently delved into the ways leaders abuse power and prescribed actions leaders and followers can take to forestall and stop abusive leader behaviors. Robert Terry (1993, 2001) is a prime example and among those who engage another key debate in the field: Is ethics embedded in leadership, or is leadership mainly about effectiveness?

Team. Studies of team leadership may be considered a part of organizational leadership studies, since the teams that are dissected usually exist within organizations. The recent growth in this research stream flowed from the realization in the business world in the 1980s that cross-functional teams were key to organizational efficiency and innovation. This stream builds on research into small group psychology and behavior (Johnson and Johnson, 2003) and to some extent reflects the move within leadership studies generally from a focus on a single in-charge leader to an interest in leadership roles than can be shared among team members (Wheelan, 1999). An important current within this stream is research about leading high performance teams (Csikszentmihalyi, 1990). Some scholars also now write about the dynamics of “top teams,” meaning the handful of executives or senior managers who collaborate in the running of an organization (Zaccaro, 2001). Research on specific team leadership skills, such as conflict management and facilitation, abounds (Schwarz, 2002; Johnson and Johnson, 2003). Zaccaro (2001) provides a good overview of research on team leadership.

Organizational. This well-developed research stream has focused on the leaders’ role in organizational success, performance, and innovation. A very sizable number of researchers have investigated the manager-subordinate relationship. The empirical studies look for correlations between specific leader behaviors and variables like follower satisfaction and unit performance; they also look for mediating and moderating factors. One of the oldest and best-known typologies is derived from the research of a group at Ohio State University including Ralph Stogdill, (1963, 1974). The group’s work identified two basic aspects of leader behavior—task structuring and individual consideration. Other prominent currents within the stream are path-goal theory, leader-member exchange theory, decision-making, substitutes for leadership, situational theory, charisma, transformational vs. transactional behavior, attachment styles, and diversity. Well-known researchers include Ralph Stogdill, Bernard Bass, Bruce J. Avolio, Gary Yukl, Jay Conger, James Kouzes and Barry Posner (Bass, 1990; Avolio, 1999; Yukl, 2006; Conger, 1999; Kouzes & Posner, 2002, 2003). Peter Northouse (2004) has published a good overview text.

Recent research continues to explore the traditional currents, but has added several others including distributed leadership (related to decentralized structures, the need for speedy adaptation, innovation), complex adaptive systems (related to distributive leadership), framing, innovation and change, servanthood and spirituality, and culture. Well-known theorists include Peter Senge (1994), Russ Marion and Mary Uhl-Bien (2001), Lee Bolman and Terrence Deal (2003), Andrew Van de Ven (Van de Ven et al., 1999), John Bryson (2004), Kim Boal (Boal and Bryson, 1987; Boal and Hooijberg, 2000); Robert Greenleaf (1977) and disciples, Peter Vaill (1996), André Delbecq (1995), Russ Moxley (2000), Edgar Schein (2004). Ron Heifetz, and his adaptive leadership approach, is probably most associated with this level, though he has used multi-level examples (from dyadic to national) in explicating the approach (Heifetz, 1994; Heifetz & Linsky, 2002). Robert Terry (2001) describes organizational leadership as a developmental process moving through zones that become increasingly imbued with uncertainty about outcomes and direction.

Although the bulk of research in this stream has focused on the business world, some researchers have examined the leadership of nonprofit executives and boards of directors (Riggio and Orr, 2004; Stone, 2006) and government administrators (Van Wart, 2003). One of the most ambitious recent studies in organizational leadership is the GLOBE Project (House et al., 2004), which collected data in 62 countries from managers and other sources about the relation of cultural values to effective organizational leadership. A general finding was that “charismatic/value-based leadership” is universally prized, and that team-oriented and participative leadership are widely deemed desirable. At the same time, countries differ considerably in the value that citizens place on other types of leadership, and even those types that are universally desirable are enacted differently in different cultures.

Interorganizational, Community, and National. With his book Leadership, James MacGregor Burns (1978) struck a chord with those grappling with the connection between leadership and power and between leadership and ethics. Focusing intensely on the use of power by presidents, premiers, social movement leaders, and dictators, he linked a political scientist’s interest in heads of state, a historian’s interest in biography, a sociologist’s interest in social movements, and a psychologist’s view of adult moral development. His naming and explication of transactional vs. transformational leadership has been vastly influential in leadership studies ever since. The transactional vs. transformational rubric resonated somewhat with Stogdill’s leadership typology and with earlier work on charisma. Bass and Avolio worked out a more operational version of Burns’ approach and applied it to organizational leadership. They identified four aspects of transformational leadership (idealized influence, individualized consideration, inspirational motivation, and intellectual stimulation), two aspects of transactional leadership (management by exception and contingent reward) and something they called laissez-faire leadership. The instrument they developed (the Multifactor Leadership Questionnaire or MLQ) has been used extensively in organizational leadership research (Bass, 1998).

Additional important scholarship at this level includes the work of Barbara Kellerman, who has extended Burns’ work on top political leaders, and more recently described the mutual learning that can and should occur between leaders in the business and government sectors (Kellerman, 1991, 1999). Harry Boyte and others have highlighted leadership in connection with community organizing and civic capacity. These scholars emphasize skills of public debate, problem solving, effective mobilization and campaigning. For Boyte, leadership is an attribute of community residents who become active citizens (Boyte, 2004). Other examples are catalytic leadership (Luke, 1998), collaborative leadership (Chrislip, 1994; Bryson & Crosby, 1992; Crosby & Bryson, 2005), leadership within collaboratives (Huxham & Vangen, 2005).

Global. Harlan Cleveland and others focus on the leadership work of building global institutions (Cleveland, 1993, 2002). Some scholars focus on leading multinational corporations (Shipka, 1997). Barbara Crosby and John Bryson have investigated leadership of transnational citizen organizations and movements (Crosby & Bryson, 2005; Crosby, 1999). In his latest book, James MacGregor Burns explores the possibilities for people around the world to demand and develop leadership for dealing with complex, common problems (Burns, 2003).

Cross-sector research. Some of the research at the community to global levels focuses on cross-sector partnerships, networks, and collaboration, but the authors pay little attention per se to how leaders bridge the sectors. Most of the research on cross-sector collaboration focuses on structures, process, practices, and only a bit on people and leadership (Huxham & Vangen, 2005; Provan & Milward, 1995). This research emphasis is a priority for the Humhrey Institute’s Public and Nonprofit Leadership Center (Stone, 2004; Crosby & Bryson, 2005).

Leadership Development

Leadership development has become a U.S., if not a worldwide, industry in the last 25 years. Programs sponsored by businesses, for-profit centers, universities, foundations, community groups, and professional associations abound. Program evaluations and meta-studies show that many of these programs have impact on participants’ understanding of themselves as leaders and on their ability to think systematically and creatively and work in social systems (McCauley, Moxley, & Van Velsor, 1998; Reflective Leadership Center, 2001). A recent meta-analysis conducted by the Gallup Leadership Institute showed that leadership development programs had greatest positive impact on leaders’ effectiveness (in teams and organizations) by increasing leaders’ self-efficacy (Avolio and Luthans, 2006). Veteran leadership educators emphasize the importance of multifaceted and experiential leadership education (McCauley, Moxley, & Van Velsor, 1998; Conger and Benjamin, 1999; Giber, Carter, & Goldsmith, 2000).

Implications for Integrative Leadership Research and Development

To build on the foundations outlined above, scholars of integrative leadership might pursue research in two main areas:

1. Understanding leadership that bridges business, nonprofit, government, media, and community sectors in order to foster beneficial solutions to public problems that affect all sectors:

  • What are examples of successes and failures of integrative leadership?
  • What are antecedent factors most likely to foster integrative leadership?
  • What contingent factors affect evolution of integrative leadership?
  • What is similar and different about ways that leadership tends to be understood in the sectors?
  • What are the dominant values and logics in each sector? How can they be bridged?

Some ideas like balanced scorecard, performance measures, triple bottom-line accountability are signs of cross-fertilization.

  • Are some sectors better than others at particular aspects of innovation and problem solving?
  • Can we talk about sector culture and building an integrative culture? Such a culture might value learning, entrepreneurship.
  • What is the role of media, currently and potentially, in depicting integrative leadership?
  • What generational differences affect integrative leadership?

2. Understanding how individuals can develop themselves to lead in this world—in other words, be integrative leaders. Promising avenues based on existing research are cognitive, social, behavioral complexity and self-efficacy and collective efficacy.

  • How do leadership educators foster needed cognitive, social, behavioral complexity; self-efficacy and collective efficacy?
  • What motives and attributes are important for integrative leadership?


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Barbara Crosby, Ph.D., associate professor in the Public and Nonprofit Leadership Center at the Humphrey Institute of Public Affairs, University of Minnesota, specializing in leadership, cross-sector collaboration, and public policy; member of the faculty steering committee member, Center for Integrative Leadership.