Leading in theory and practice

death-of-nelson.jpgThere’s an old joke about how academics view the world. On learning of some leadership achievement, they are inclined to remark ‘That’s all very well in practice … but does it work in theory?’

Theories of leadership abound. It’s finding ones to support leadership practice that turn out to be the more challenging assignment …

Here are four topics explored at Manchester Business School [February 13th, 2008] by Vice-Admiral Charles Style with an audience of business, military, and sporting leaders. I’ve provided a few of those ‘does it work in theory’ footnotes to go with the rich mix of shared experiences of the practitioners.

Leading in dynamic and challenging circumstances

The buzzword here is turbulence. For much of history, great leadership has been mythologised as the exercise of exceptional skills under extreme and unclear circumstances. More recently, the theories have explored the nature or turbulence, with attention to unpredictability under so-called chaotic conditions.

The mathematical models sometimes gave way to middle-range theories such as the Tipping Point at which an old system flips over to a new one.

One of my favorite books came from The Center for Creative Leadership, and Stan Gryskiewicz who described Positive Turbulence. Stan has more recently founded an institute for the study of the subject.

Delegation and empowerment in others

Delegation became a cornerstone of modern management theories. Perhaps wrongly, I assumed it had seen somehow sidelined from Business School courses, perhaps dismissed as too trivial a concept to be worthy of mention any more. Perhaps it is mentioned in the behavioral model of Tannenbaum and Schmidt

The practicing leader must find pause for one of the toughest questions ‘what must I do do myself, and what am I better leaving to others to do?’. This is what T&S suggests. Another question might me ‘If I don’t do it myself, how can I influence others to do it?’ This is a question to which the model doesn’t give too many answers.

Empowerment remains a buzzword, but to me there is too much rhetoric, and insufficient encouragement to accept that empowerment poses leaders with similar dilemmas to that posed by the delegation questions.

The human dynamics of leadership and strategic implementation

After a hundred years of trait theories ‘what leaders are’ we became interested in the dynamics of leadership ‘what leaders do’.

One of the more important issues is what effective leaders do. Strategic leadership is a particularly important arena in which these matters are played out.

The leader’s personal value added

This brings us the last question. What price can we put on good leadership? The Resource Based Theory (RBT) of the firm has brought a fresh perspective to the question.

RBT teaches us that an organisation succeeds by utilizing ‘hard to copy’ resources, which usually refer to skills and knowledge residing in its people including leaders.

Leading in theory and practice

The Manchester Business School has directed its attention on a leadership approach which combines theory and practice. Whether this comes under the rubric of Manchester Method, Action Learning, or Leadership development is less important than a commitment to leading in theory and practice.

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