The Nature of Leadership Essay

The Nature of Leadership Essay:

“The contemporary empirical literature on leadership often seems fragmented and contradictory. It is the thesis of this work that a solid structure can be built to organize and integrate what we know about leadership. The key building blocks of that structure will be an understanding of the basic functions of leadership, that is, what leaders must do to be effective, and the critical processes of leadership, that is, how the functions fit together in the accomplishment of the task.

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Leadership is a process involving social interaction, and like all such processes, the question of what behaviors are desirable must be understood within the social context. The appropriateness and desirability of leadership and other social behavior is determined by the values of the culture in which the behavior occurs. In some cultures, the specifications of acceptable behavior for a particular role are quite precise and little leeway is allowed in expression. Yammarino (1993) called such cultures “tight.” Other cultures are normatively somewhat looser, giving a role occupant a greater range of appropriateness in which to function. What is true, however, is that every culture (whether religious, national, or organizational culture) does prescribe which behaviors are normative in a social context.

Culture is the way in which a social unit adapts to its environment over time. Yammarino made the analogy that, “Culture is to society what memory is to individuals. It is the depository of what has worked and not worked in the past” (Yammarino, 1993). Culture is the interface that connects the group with the environmental context in which it must function. The nature of the environment sets limits on the form that the culture must take to successfully exploit that interface. Once the form of the social unit’s interaction with the environment is determined, the rest of the culture is molded to fit around that “cutting edge” form. In words that we have used earlier, the culture is first determined by “external adaptability,” and then the “internal maintenance” processes are brought into coherence. (Yammarino, 1993)

Perhaps an example will help to illustrate the relationship of adaptation and maintenance. If an environment, perhaps due to climate or lack of arable land, makes hunting and gathering more feasible than agriculture, the people living in that environment are more likely to prosper if they adopt that method of subsistence. However, successful hunting and gathering cultures usually depend on cooperative sharing of the food resoucefully gathered, frequently by individuals working independently. This implies that hunting and gathering cultures must encourage cooperation while developing independent and resourceful members. Democratic political structures (e.g., tribal councils) and egalitarian religious systems help to encourage the growth of self-sufficient and cooperative group members. (Yukl, 2005)

This is not to say, by any means, that the environment absolutely and completely determines the form that external adaptability takes, nor that external adaptability has a tight, one-to-one relationship to the form of the internal culture. In each case, demarcation of limits or of a range of possibilities is made. Certain and climates make agriculture an unlikely form of economic adaptation, and make hunting and gathering economies more likely. Yet, not all hunting and gathering societies are exactly alike. Nonetheless, we can predict a lot about the way a group will organize itself if we acknowledge the strategies it has adopted to maximize its survival.

We can also team a great deal about how effective leadership is defined by observing the nature of the leadership role in different types of societies. Different forms of economic strategy (e.g., hunting vs. farming) result in different organizational structures placing specific demands on the leadership role and the kinds of persons who fill that role. We can observe how leadership is evaluated in relation to the types of subsistence technologies that have evolved across the course of human history. Such an examination tells us not only about the historical record, but also helps us to place in perspective the role of leadership in contemporary organizational culture. (Bass, 1996)

The evolution of food-getting technology (subsistence) can be divided up in a number of ways, but one set of categories has fairly widespread agreement. Subsistence technologies proceeded from hunting and gathering through horticulture (gardening or small-scale agriculture) to agriculture(extensive field-crop production). Technology helps determine two critical features of the society; (a) the most productive way to organize collective effort to implement the technology, and (b) the amount of surplus wealth created by the technology. These two factors help determine the kinds of personalities that are most beneficial for members of a society to possess and the kinds of organizational structures that are most efficient.

Hunting and gathering techniques vary. In some societies, people hunt or gather individually or in small groups, whereas in other groups or at other times, bigger groups may organize a large-scale hunt. However, what all of these cultures share is a relatively unpredictable supply of food, putting a premium on the resourcefulness of individuals to utilize the resources of their environment creatively, and a high level of cooperation and sharing among group members to forestall and reduce the impact of temporary shortages. The lack of the technology’s capacity to generate or maintain large surpluses reduces the advantage of competition or status striving. There is little benefit to the society to have people competing, because their competition does not enhance the accumulation of food, and it weakens the cooperative ties necessary for survival. (Yukl, 2005)

The kind of adult personality that is valued in such groups is that which makes a person independent and resourceful enough to exploit an unpredictable environment, yet modest and unassuming enough to maintain cordial interpersonal relations with others. Such societies tend to be very egalitarian, as might be expected in groups of independent individuals. Influence tends to be done through persuasion rather than coercion, and decision making is relatively democratic, that is, through councils. Thus, the nature of leadership is an important aspect of a society’s adaptation.

Anthropologist Stanley Diamond (1969) distinguished the way in which leadership roles are distributed in a society. (Yukl, 2005) Situational leadership roles are temporary roles designated for some particular task, and the emergence of the role is based on the special ability of an individual with respect to the task at hand. Thus, if the group is undertaking a hunt of some particular animal, one or more members of the group might be given leadership roles because of their experience and expertise at hunting that particular animal. Those leadership responsibilities and authority would last only as long as the group was focused on the particular activity. (Bass, 1996)

Under some circumstances, the redistributor models evolved into true rank structures with decidedly autocratic overtones. This shift was made possible by some critical features of the social/economic system. First, food surpluses had to reach sufficient accumulations to allow the leader to hire a retinue of followers who were paid by and loyal to that person. This represented the beginnings of an army or police force.

A second necessary feature was some barrier to the leader’s followers shifting their allegiances when the leader’s demands became too onerous. Islands, like those of Polynesia, or deserts or other inhospitable ecotones like the deserts surrounding the Mesoamerican centers, made it hard for disgruntled followers to move. Hostile, warlike relations with neighboring groups also discouraged movement. (Yukl, 2005) Many of these features were present in the large-scale agrarian societies, along with some other characteristics that encourage the development of hierarchical power structures and restrict access to leadership roles.

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