The Gross Theory of Leadership

I’m working on my annual assessment for the first year of my doctoral program. I came across something I wrote for class last fall, and after reading it decided I’d like to share it with my online community to start a discussion about personal theories of leadership. This is longer than a typical blog post, and it’s largely still written in the style of an academic paper.

When I think back on my life so far, I notice I’ve been both observing leaders and serving in leadership roles since I was about 16 years old.  My experiences in high school and college, combined with influences of my parents, early career colleagues and public leaders have shaped my philosophy of leadership.  After recently reading Leadership and the New Science (Wheatley, 2006) and Switch: How To Change Things When Change Is Hard (Heath & Heath, 2010), my beliefs about leadership have come into greater focus.  Careful examination of this literature combined with my experiences and those who have influenced me have led me to develop my personal theory of leadership: A leader develops a culture of collaboration and personal growth as a means to progress towards a shared vision

First, a leader develops a culture of collaboration.  I believe that collaboration is essential for an organization to be successful.  The real work of a leader in this case is not to make simple instances of collaboration happen, but rather to nurture an environment that encourages, supports, and rewards continued collaboration among members.  When members of an organization collaborate, the result is a well-rounded product, idea or strategy that represents the entire organization.  Often, large organizations become so compartmentalized that solutions developed in the absence of collaboration are shortsighted or completely discount the effect they may have on other members of the organization.  A culture of collaboration places value on relationships, and members expect that strategic relationships are vital to the success of everything they do.  Wheatley (2006) posits what a relationship-based organization might look like: “As we struggle with the designs that will replace bureaucracy, we must invent organizations where process is allowed its varied-tempo dance, where structures come and go as they support the work that needs to get done, and where forms arise to support the necessary relationship” (p. 70).  Given my background in interpersonal communication and education, it is not surprising that I consider collaboration a large component of an organization’s success.

I also believe that leaders must develop a culture of personal growth.  Because there is always room for improvement, all members of an organization should be continuously striving to become better at what they do and expanding what they know.  Personal growth can happen in many ways, including informational readings, conference attendance, networking, planned learning experiences, mentoring and on-the-job learning.  Sometimes, personal growth results from information sharing.  Wheatley (2010) stated, “One of an organization’s most critical competencies is to create the conditions that both generate new knowledge and help it be freely shared” (p. 110).  Members of organizations with effective leadership feel that continual growth is essential not just to their personal development, but also to the ultimate success of the organization.  When employees are able to continue in positions in which they’ve remained stagnant for years, I believe a disservice has been done to both the employees and the organization.

Essential to the first two components of my theory of leadership is the ability of a leader to develop a positive culture, which is not an easy task.  Essentially, a leader is trying to direct actions of followers in such a way that those actions seem natural and are eventually self-directed and encouraged by all members of the organization.  Transformational leadership is an effective model for developing a culture, because it results in members/followers internalizing the vision of the leader.  Creating a culture involves creating a one-to-many relationship between a leader and his/her followers while also cultivating relationships among followers, while trusting that the energy created between members will move the culture in a positive direction.  It is my belief that this positive energy is what allows an organization to progress towards a shared vision as a whole, rather than in fragments of dedicated followers.

Finally, for progress towards a shared vision to exist, the leader must cast a compelling vision that is shared by all members of the organization.  Heath and Heath (2010) refer to this as a “destination postcard­”—a clear vision of where a leader wants the group to be at the end of a journey.  A strong vision always feels within reach, yet always leaves room for improvement.  Without the motivation to reach a vision that is beyond the current state of the organization, members risk falling into complacency and the organization will be left behind while other organizations strive to continually better themselves.  I believe it is also the role of a leader to articulate progress that has been made so followers are constantly reminded of the path they’re on.  Additionally, a salient shared vision allows an organization to change and grow without losing its purpose.  Wheatley (2006) wrote, “When an organization knows who it is, what its strengths are, and what it is trying to accomplish, it can respond intelligently to changes from its environment” (p. 85-86).

As an avid user of technology and social media, I often look to leading companies like Google and Facebook for leadership role models.  What impresses me about these companies (and the people who lead them) are their relevant, yet never quite achievable, vision statements and the work environment they create for their employees.  Google, founded by Larry Page and Sergey Brin, has maintained the same mission statement since its inception in 1998: “to organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful” (Google, 2010a).  Facebook and its founder Mark Zuckerberg, on the other hand, have gone through a variety of mission statements as the company has changed.  The current mission statement finally seems to reflect the type of vision I believe in: “making the world more open and connected” (Parr, 2010).  These are shared visions I admire because they are relevant to the company, but can always be improved upon.  I don’t think Larry Page and Sergey Brin will ever wake up and believe that all of the world’s information has finally been made accessible and useful, nor will Mark Zuckerberg ever decide that the world is finally open and connected.  Both companies hire people that believe in their vision, and they continue to innovate because the vision allows room for that.

Additionally, Google and Facebook both foster the type of culture I feel a leader should strive to develop.  Google is famous for its 20 percent time—one day per week when engineers can work on any type of project they feel is worth their time (Google, 2010b).  This is a cultural commitment to personal development and innovation.  Facebook has developed a culture that values collaboration, starting with its physical workspace.  At the Facebook headquarters there are no cubicles; the open feel gives employees the opportunity to collaborate with each other at any point throughout the day (Miller & Carlson, 2009).

In conclusion, I believe a good leader does what’s best for the success of both the organization and its members.  This includes developing a culture of collaboration and personal growth, as well as encouraging progress towards a shared vision.  Both personal and public leaders, as well as leadership texts from scholars and popular authors inform my theory.  Although my beliefs about leadership are likely to change throughout my lifetime, I can’t imagine these essential components would ever be absent from my personal theory of leadership.

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