Peter Northouse and colleagues have written a deservedly popular text on leadership. Its fifth edition (2010) preserves the clarity of style of earlier editions. The book has appeal to students for its simplicity and comprehensive coverage of the historic leadership theories. These strengths work particularly well if the book is used within introductory courses on leadership.
As a tutor of leadership programmes to Masters level, I am aware of the debt owed to tutors and students to the materials provided in earlier editions of Northouse’s text on leadership. Within MBA programmes, I have come across the text in reading materials for modules such as organizational behaviour, project management, innovation and change management, as well as in my own leadership course reading lists. With a few reservations which I will come to below, I have little to quarrel with the [Sage] publisher’s back-cover claims that the book is a perennial best-seller with clear coverage of leadership case studies and questionnaires.
Bringing students up to speed
One of the challenges of MBA programmes is that for a proportion of the subjects covered, such as finance, accounting, project management, there is a wide spread of previously acquired knowledge. Tutors try to bring the less experienced students up to speed. Northouse’s text works well in that role, particularly if the MBA is not providing a specific course on leadership
The more experienced MBA student
The hallmark features which contribute to the success of the book become more problematic for students already experienced in leadership responsibilities within professional careers. Most MBA programmes require students to have several years such experience as a pre-requisite for entry on the course. I find that these students turn to Northouse in the way they also increasingly turn to Google and Wikipedia, that is to say for reliable headline information on the various leadership theories. These forays into information searching sometimes act as a quick-fix rather than a guide to approaching the subject’s uncertainties and dilemmas. Without careful complementing of introductory materials, students remain in a comfort-zone of a college course designed to cover the basics.
The additional dilemma of MBA courses
An additional dilemma facing tutors of MBA programmes is that for a proportion of the subjects covered, such as finance, accounting, project management, there is a wide spread of previously acquired knowledge. Each component of the course needs materials to help bring the inexperienced students to a base-line of competence for better exchange of ideas within learning sets such as project teams and syndicate discussion sessions. This is where Northouse still plays a valuable part even in graduate courses. It is less able to provide what is needed as a core text on such courses.
Dilemmas of leadership
The additional challenges are to encourage each student to connect up the materials with personal experience and expectations. Tutors have to find approaches which work for them. Incidentally, this an echo of situational leadership, in which ‘effective leaders are those who recognize what employees need and then adapt their style to meet those needs’ (Northouse, 2010, p90).
Whether tutor or leadership student, the next challenge after ‘knowing that’ is to encourage critical or reflective thinking or ‘knowing how’. Graduate level texts offer various approaches to build on the foundations provided in an introductory text such as Northouse’s.
This review was prepared during the period when his own text of leadership was being revised for publication. Its new edition will acknowledge the continued merits of Northouse as a fine introductory book for leadership students who will also be encouraged to evaluate its contents in a process demonstrating critical thinking applied to personal leadership dilemmas.