Fads and fashions

I’ve pretty much completed my initial reading on leadership theory. I’ve got about 200 references across the spectrum from positivist theory (behavioural, charismatic, trait) through to critical leadership theory (feminist, post-heroic, distributed) and a special section of leadership relevant to the creative industries (not for profit, creativity in leadership, leader as metaphor.)  So If you want a nutshell history of leadership in the twentieth and twenty-first century I am your go to person.

If the aim of the literature review is to demonstrate that your are across the relevant theory, I feel that I am well on the way to achieving that (that said I have another half to research: leadership development techniques.)  Reading like I have for the past 8 months (yes it has been that long, but only concentrated for the past 3) has made me aware that in academic research there are fads and fashions just as there are in any other industry.  Someone comes up with an interesting idea, it is grasped by others and run with, then a whole other group shoots it down.  Then the next thing comes along.

You could argue that the whole evolution of theory is like that – trait theory was popular until behavioural came along, until that was replaced by contingency etc.  Everyone in leadership and management is looking for the silver bullet that will make organisations successful, and the prize for success would be wealth and fame.  Make others rich and you will be too.

When I was working in leadership development it was all about change.  Change was the word.  The whole idea of managing a successful organisation of the time (1990s – 2000s) was making it adaptable to change. The pace of change was accelerating, technology advancing and leaders needed to be able to a) cope with this change but also b) instigate and successfully manage change within their organisation.

The guru of change leadership was John P. Kotter from Harvard Business School.  I can’t remember how, but I managed to go to a one day event of his in Melbourne and it resonated for years with me.  Firstly he was a brilliant story-teller himself, and he spoke about the leaders’ capacity to control narrative to instigate change. He spun this long tale about the night Martin Luther King Jr was shot and the subsequent rioting that occurred over the USA.  He claimed that the city where Bobby Kennedy was campaigning for President was the only one spared,  due to his capacity to rally people behind him in difficult circumstances.  No idea if it was true, but it was beautifully done.

What’s interesting looking back at this, and now rereading some of the change theory written by Kotter and others, is not only the insistence that change is THE most important element in business (Kotter argues that all leadership can be defined as is the ability to manage change, as opposed to management which is the ability to manage complexity) but the heroic nature of the leadership discussed.  Even the Kennedy example above – it was about one single man (usually a man or still a masculine defined leader) using his skills and abilities to impact a city in a positive way.  This pretty much sums up the 3,000 words I hope to write in the next week.

But something happened in the last 10 years.  Suddenly the ‘why’ has shifted.  Change isn’t seen as the driving force that it was, though it is still mentioned, along with the social and political events like 9/11 and the GFC which have helped lead a critical reassessment of leadership.  Now the organisational holy grail is another c-word: creativity.

If I look at my spreadsheet listing references and page numbers, by far the most populated column is that of creativity.  It isn’t just because of my thesis topic (creative industries, yes I know) it is because so many leadership theories now suggest that enhancing or realising creative potential is now the way to achieve lasting organisational success.  This is one reason why the arts and creative sector is seen to be a new avenue for leadership research – they must be ‘good’ at creativity, right?

Personally I can attest to experiencing this in my last corporate role (which I left in 2010), enhancing creative potential in leaders was a main focus on development, and this was in a financial services company.  Gone where the 2-hour sessions on change management, and replaced by drumming workshops and painting classes (not joking.)

I wonder what the next fad will be?

I may not post for the next few days, with my goal to write 1,000 words per day of my actual literature review. So I hope to be back with 10,000 words under my belt before I shift focus in May to leadership development.


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