The Quest for a General Theory of Leadership, George Goethals and Georgia Sorenson, eds. Northampton, MA, US A: Edward Elgar, 2006.
This book represents a most robust look at the study of leadership while representing multiple disciplines in a “quest” to find agreement about leadership and theory. While the quest has not resulted in finding its prize, it is deemed a success by its participants for the learning that they shared during the journey. Still James MacGregor Burns, who in 2001 issued the call for this journey, reflects,
Let me leave you with a challenge and a question. The amazing events that unfolded in Montgomery and the state and the nation [during the Civil Rights movement] are that the people in action embraced every major aspect of leadership and integrated it: individual leadership, collective leadership, intra-group and inter-group conflict, conflict of strongly held values, power aspects, etc.—and ultimately produced a real change leading to more change. They made our country a better country.
If those activities could integrate the complex processes and elements of eadership in practice, in reality, should we not be able to do so in theory? [p, 239]
In this volume you will find a very clear account of the challenges the participants faced and their responses to them. As the editors point out, “One of the foundational issues was the very idea of an integrative theory.” This serves to point out how these representatives of leadership theory are either oblivious to integral theory or how they have dismissed it as offering an approach that would meet their concerns. Indeed, integral theory, particularly integral mapping, is challenged by some of the theoretical issues raised in these chapters. And I think it is important to note that the focus of the participants is on political leadership and not on leadership in business.
Perhaps even more foundational is, as Elizabeth A. Faier—an anthropologist—phrased it. “We have some boundary issues…what counts as leadership?” The editors go on to state, “In making integrative decisions, some ideas an approaches will inevitably be excluded.” This assumption seems both true and questionable. It is true that in integrative processes we may find ideas that are better than others. Isn’t this always true in building knowledge, practice, and theory? The challenge that integral theory poses is how can approaches be integrated without excluding useful and insightful methodologies and perspectives? Ken Wilber’s approach and those of other integral theorists suggest there is a path that can accomplish this. But this is not addressed in the quest. Yet, their question was not unlike an integral aspiration when the editors state” “Thus, out of this foundational conflict came what would become one of the strengths of the project: a theoretical conceptualization that aspired to embrace a multitude of approaches to leadership. Still, in these explorations issues confronted by integral theory were also raised. An example of this is the question of “is” versus “ought.”
Integral mapping and its associated multiple methodologies offers a path to describing complex occurrences. Integral philosophy holds up universal values for the “ought”: The Good, The True and the Beautiful. These concepts inevitably involve us in philosophical disputes about what meets these criteria and what does not. In that sense, integral theory is not better off than these academics as to what values guide the ”ought.” The answers lie somewhere in developmental hierarchies and holarchies grounded in concepts like the great chain of being and/or growing complexity. The easiest answer may be that what is good, true and beautiful is that which allows us to perceive and be effective in that which guides us along multiple streams to hold and engage the more complex. I trust we all see the challenges posed by this. I have no answer other than an acceptance of what is and the investment of energy in creating the Good, the True and the Beautiful in my own life and my relationships with others, individually and collectively.
In the Quest…you will find accounts of the experiences of participants over four years and individual chapters addressing aspects of leadership such as power, group dynamics and ethics. These are introduced by a chapter by J. Thomas Wren, an historian, who offers a “Period table of leadership studies.” This Figure is adapted here.
This chart deserves considerable attention as an example of mapping theories related to the study of leadership. By using a “Periodic Table” metaphor, however, this ignores the fact that in the Periodic Table the elements are arranged according to one variable: atomic weight. There is no one or even two variables dictating where items fall on this table. Rather, there are five categories:
- The context of leadership
- Focus on the individual as leader or follower
- Focus on process in which leadership is evident
- Focus on the ethics and norms associated with leadership
- Focus on research method used to study leadership
The latter is very, very high level. In any case, any study of leader or leadership might combine elements of all five. The value in the Table is that it shows us just how fractured the field of leadership studies—and our thinking about it—continues to be. An integral approach would use a holonic matrix to map the factors, and even a developmental model such as a holarchy. For now, it is sufficient to point out that integral and transdisciplinary approaches offer the greatest potential that I see in addressing these issues. Integral studies is clearly presented here as a multi-disciplinary field. It is ripe for more integrative development.
By not reporting on all of the chapters of this book I mean their authors no disrespect. They have, indeed provided a service. Michael Harvey has summarized perspectives on power and leadership. Ron Riggio and his coauthors have looked at leadership through the lens of group dynamics. Michael Harvey, in a second chapter looks at “Leadership and the human condition.” I will focus on two chapters that were of greatest interest to me in the hope that you will find value is this discussion, as well. The first is by Hickman and Couto: “Causality, change and leadership.”
- They begin by proposing that the differences in approaches to leadership is a divide between essentialist and constructionist assumptions:
- In general essentialists maintain that social and natural realities exist apart from our perceptions of reality and that individuals perceive the world rather than construct it….Conversely, constructionists belief that humans construct or create reality and give it meaning through social, economic and political interactions. [p. 152]
These differences are significant among scholars of leadership because they shape “the way we view problems, ask questions, conduct research, construct theories and create solutions.” [p. 153] Building on this understanding the authors explore a civil rights episode to examine change “in the context of the interdependence and interaction of many actors, all of whom we may regard as leaders in light of the consequence of their action. Their actions, if intended to bring or hinder change, we will call leadership.”  Consequently, they distinguish between leader—the role of an individual—and leadership—the phenomenon of leading as it shows up in a system over time. To illustrate their thinking on this subject they draw on the work of authors like Heifetz, Wheatley, Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle and Buddhist mindfulness. Already this is the most holistic view of perspective relevant for the study of leadership. And an important implication of all of this is the nonlinearity of causality: “…causality is rooted in dynamic, interactive systems of interrelated parts that resemble and differ from each other.”  Consequently, so much of the leadership literature must be questioned on the basis of its linear (and often unidirectional) notion of causality.
Cuoto is quoted as writing “Leadership is a creative and generative act—literally bringing new realities into being through collaboration with others.” [p. 179] While not a definition, I think this is a most important perspective. For one thing, it leads to the conclusion that the use of tools such as scenarios in leader development are essential to engage with a world of uncertainty and ambiguity. I couldn’t agree more.
The chapter by Sonia Ospina and Georgia L.K.J. Sorenson—“A constructionist lens on leadership: charting new territory” comes down on the constructionism side of the differences in assumptions present in the larger group. Their focus is on community leadership. They state, “A constructionist lens suggests that leadership happens when a community develops and uses, over time, shared agreements to create results that have collective value.” [p, 188] This is a “worldview” perspective attending to assumptions about ourselves and the world, the nature of knowledge and change that is “mediated through levels of personal and organizational power—and a set of ethical references or core values of social justice that help anchor decisions and actions.”[p. 188] Leadership and leading emerge from this.
Our understanding of leadership is a product of worldviews and our interactions over time. It is an emergent phenomenon that is a product of these interactions. They state: “’the leader,’ while relevant to action, represents a different phenomenon than that of ‘leadership’, and…each demands to be treated distinctly.” [p. 190] Further, they suggest, “Leadership is a unique type of meaning-making process…because the shared agreements that produce leadership are articulated and generated within a community of practice.” [p. 193]
To me, this indicates the value in an integral approach that includes attention to process.
Their ideas are also suggestive of the value of bringing developmental psychology into the considerations of leadership. When I read, “One way to understand leadership in a community is to uncover the underlying dominant knowledge principle that its members are using to make sense of their work”, it was impossible for me not to think of Spiral Dynamics, in particular, because of its utility in addressing both individual and collective worldviews.
- In Burns’ closing statement quoted above, he is really opening the door to continuing the quest. We need to have a definition of leadership in action to build a general theory of leadership. He summarizes the group’s work with this construct of leadership:
- …we now see leadership as an influence process, both visible and invisible, in a society inherited, constructed, and perceived as the interaction of persons in human (and inhuman) conditions of inequality—an interaction measured by ethical and moral values and by the degree of realization of intended, comprehensive, and durable change. [italics in the original]
I cannot help but wonder how this work would have progressed if participants had brought a transdisciplinary (rather than interdisciplinary or multi-disciplinary), developmental and integral approach to their work. But they have challenged us to proceed in our work to do so.
— Russ Volckmann
Culture, Leadership, and Organizations:The GLOBE Study of 62 Societies, Robert J. House, Paul J. Hanges, Mansour Javidan, Peter w. Dorfman and Vipin Gupta, eds. Thousand Oaks: Sage Publications, 2004.
This 800+ page book is long enough that it might excuse taking three years to getting around to reporting on it. It is a report on a literally colossal study of leadership around the world. “One hundred and seventy investigators from 62 cultures worked on this project. Twenty of them participated in writing this book. They tested 27 hypotheses that linked culture to interesting outcomes, with data from 17,300 managers in 951 organizations.” The methodological thoroughness and attention to detail is impressive. While excluding multinational organizations, which might introduce a bias that could distort findings related to discrete cultures, they focused on middle managers in three industries: finance, food and telecommunications.
Findings were addressed in ten categories, each represented by a chapter. The list of chapter titles helps to demonstrate the scope of their survey:
- Performance Orientation
- Future Orientation
- Cross-Cultural Difference in Gender Egalitarianism
- Individualism and Collectivism
- Power Distance
- Humane Orientation in Societies, Organizations and Leader Attributes
- Uncertainty Avoidance
- Societal Culture and Industrial Sector Influence
- Leadership and Cultural Variation: The Identification of Culturally Endorsed Leadership Profiles
Samples of findings are presented in aggregate, as well as by individual country and groups of countries, e.g., Nordic Europe (Finland, Sweden and Denmark).
Throughout they report significant positive and negative findings. Six types of leadership considered are
(2) Team Oriented
(5) Humane Oriented
Each of these are correlated with variables. Here is an example:
Cultural values of Improving Performance, Rewarding Performance, Being Innovative and Challenging Goals are positively related to all the first four leadership dimensions and negatively correlated with Self-Protective. This leads to conclusions like, “the kind of leadership viewed as effective is a reflection of the extent to which an organization and society practice and value Performance Orientation.” They conclude that Performance Orientation is a neglected research variable and needs further attention. An important finding is that
…there were more significant relationships with Performance Orientation values and the CLTs [culturally endorsed implicit theories of leadership] than there were with Performance Orientation practices at both the organizational and societal levels of analysis…When individuals think about effective leader behaviors, they are more influenced by the value they place on the desired future than their perception of current realities. 
This would seem to confirm those descriptions of leadership that include vision and real change. Both are about the future.
Another set of correlations relate to Gender Equalitarianism in the culture. Cultural values of having both men and women managers, girls and boys both play sports, failure in having equal consequences for men and women, and professional development being equal are positive correlated with Charismatic and Participative leadership, but negatively correlated with Self-Protective. One finding was that
…societies currently rely to some extent on biological sex to allocate appropriate roles to members, despite the fact that most managers reported that this practice was not an ideal one. If managers’ espoused values accurately reflect their deeply held values and they are in positions to effect social change, then we may begin to see a movement in many countries toward increased gender egalitarianism. 
Individualism vs. Collectivism is a variable often used to distinguish between Eastern and Western cultures or between the cultures of societies in different stages of development. Here we find some interesting correlations. For example, the cultural values of Group Loyalty, Maximizing Collective Interests, Team Sports and Team Projects are positively correlated with five of the CLT dimensions and negatively correlated with Autonomous. But when we look at the cultural values of Organizational Loyalty, Pride in In-Group Members’ Achievement, Pride in Group Members’ Accomplishments and Proud of Society Being Viewed Positively by Others there is a positive correlation with Charismatic, Team Oriented, Participative, and Humane leadership and a negative correlation with Self-Protective.
There are many such reported findings, as well as comparisons between individual country’s. Thus, this book is teeming with data. House and his colleagues are not stopping with this. A third phase of the project seeks to link values and behaviors among CEOs, as well as the contingencies that effect choice. I found myself wondering how such a study might be benefited by a developmental perspective. There is no testing of an overarching developmental framework such as Kegan’s or Spiral Dynamics. Any takers?