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Contemporary thinking on leadership

The last thirty years has seen leadership thought evolve in a less linear manner. Rather than seeking ‘one true theory’ of leadership, contemporary thinking has explored the idea of leadership from different perspectives. These contemporary concepts of leadership inform the APS Leadership Development Strategy (2011) and resulting talent and leadership development activities.

  • Authentic leadership focuses on transparent and ethical leader behaviour and encourages open sharing of information needed to make decisions while accepting followers' inputs (Avolio, et al., 2009).

Broad interest in authentic leadership was prompted by the release of Bill George's Authentic Leadership in 2003. For George ‘authentic leadership results from knowing yourself - your strengths and weaknesses – by understanding your unique life story and the crucibles you have experienced’ (George, 2012, p. 313). While various definitions of authentic leadership have been developed, Avolio, et al, suggest there is general agreement that the following are key components of authentic leadership:

  • Balanced processing—that is, ‘objectively analysing relevant data before making a decision’.
  • Internalized moral perspective— that is, ‘being guided by internal moral standards, which are used to self-regulate one's behaviour’.
  • Relational transparency—that is, ‘presenting one's authentic self through openly sharing information and feelings as appropriate for situations’.
  • Self-awareness—that is, a ‘demonstrated understanding of one's strengths and weaknesses, and the way one makes sense of the world’ (2009).

Criticisms and challenges

As a relatively recent addition to leadership's theoretical landscape, significant criticisms of authentic leadership have not yet arisen. Proponents of authentic leadership do agree that additional work on defining and measuring authentic leadership is necessary. To discover whether authentic leadership is a foundation for good leadership, researchers suggest there is a need to ‘to examine how authentic leadership is viewed across situations and cultures’ (Avolio, et al., 2009, p. 424).

Further reading

Bruce Avolio, Fred Walumbwa & Todd Weber, (2009). ‘Leadership: Current Theories, Research and Future Directions’ in Annual Review of Psychology, Volume 60.

Bill George, (2003). Authentic Leadership: Rediscovering the secrets to creating lasting value.

  • For proponents of adaptive leadership, leadership is a practice, not a position.
  • Adaptive leadership focuses on leadership as a practice to be used in situations without known solutions.

Ronald Heifetz and his colleagues argue that adaptive leadership is a practice not a theory, defining it as the ‘practice of mobilizing people to tackle tough challenges and thrive’ (Heifetz, et al., 2009, p. 14). It is a ‘distributed leadership’ model, which means leadership can be displayed by people across an organisation, not only by those in senior positions or management roles.

Heifetz et al view leadership and management as distinct but important behaviours that complement each other as part of a broader system of action. Management (authority) is best used for technical challenges, problems – routine and complex – where the solution can be found provided you have access to people with the appropriate expertise. Management is about coping with complexity, while leadership is about coping with adaptive challenges that require adaptive change.

Adaptive challenges are those where there is ‘a gap between aspirations and operational capacity that cannot be closed by the expertise and procedures currently in place’ (Creelman, 2009, p. 1), they are systemic and have no ready answers. Adaptive change is uncomfortable; it challenges our most deeply held beliefs and suggests that deeply held values are losing relevance, bringing to the surface legitimate but competing perspectives or commitments. This means that adaptive challenges require a different form of leadership behaviour: adaptive leaders do not provide the answers (and do not equate leadership with expertise) and accept that a degree of disequilibrium is needed to sustain adaptive change (rather than minimising conflict and discomfort).

Core to adaptive work are three activities:

  1. Observing events and patterns, taking in this information as data without forming judgements or making assumptions about the data's meaning;
  2. Tentatively interpreting observations by developing multiple hypotheses about what is really going on, and at the same time, recognising that hypotheses are simply that - hypotheses; and
  3. Designing interventions based on your observations and interpretations in the service of making progress on the adaptive challenge. (Heifetz, et al., 2009)

The Practice of Adaptive Leadership: Tools and Tactics for Changing Your Organization and the World (Heifetz, et al., 2009) was published as a ‘field guide’ for learning and developing adaptive leadership skills. The authors suggest that ‘practicing adaptive leadership is difficult on the one hand and profoundly meaningful on the other’, while warning that ‘it is not something you should enter into casually’ (Heifetz, et al., 2009, p. 41). “Leadership, when seen in this light, requires a learning strategy … The adaptive demands of our time require leaders who take responsibility without waiting for revelation or request. One can lead with no more than a question in hand.” (Heifetz & Laurie, 2011, p. 78).

Criticisms and challenges

Adaptive leadership has been criticised for failing to conform to traditional views of ‘the leader’, with suggestions that it would be better described as facilitation or catalysing rather than ‘leading’ (McCrimmon, n.d.). McCrimmon (n.d.) also argues that not all leadership occurs in the context of a problem; that leadership can occur without leaders and followers necessarily working together to solve a problem (i.e. action taken by one person can influence others); and that change can sometimes be easily made without confronting an adaptive challenge.

The disconnect between what has come to be expected of a leadership theory versus the principles adaptive leadership promotes appears to arise from a failure to appreciate that Heifetz is not advocating the use of adaptive leadership at all times and is instead offering a set of tools and principles that can be applied to work through specific challenges and periods of change.

Further reading

Ronald Heifetz (1994). Leadership without Easy Answers.

Ronald Heifetz, Alexander Grashow & Marty Linsky, (2009). The Practice of Adaptive Leadership; Tools and Tactics for Changing Your Organization and the World.

Ronald Heifetz & Donald Laurie (2011). The Work of Leadership. In HBR's 10 Must Reads: On Leadership, (pp57-78).

  • Neuroleadership applies neuroscientific findings to the field of leadership.

Neuroleadership aims to ‘improve leadership effectiveness … by developing a science for leadership and leadership development that directly takes into account the physiology of the mind and the brain’ (Ringleb & Rock, 2008). Advances in imaging techniques are enabling scientists to understand how different parts of the brain activate in response to certain stimuli. As an example, awareness of physiological reasons why change processes are so often unsuccessful (due, in part, to the fact that change provokes sensations of physiological discomfort) means approaches to change can be developed taking into account these reactions (Rock & Schwartz, 2006).

There is ongoing work to apply findings from neuroscience to leadership, especially in the areas of decision making and problem solving, emotional regulation, collaborating with others and facilitating change (Ringleb, et al., 2012).

Criticisms and challenges

In the context of leadership thought, neuroleadership stands apart as a tool rather than a theory. Presented as a subfield within the general field of leadership study, advocates suggest reframing traditional leadership and leadership development theories through the lens of neuroscience (Ringleb & Rock, 2008; Rock & Ringleb, 2009).

Further reading

David Rock & Jeffrey Schwartz ( 2006). ‘The Neuroscience of Leadership’ in Strategy + Business, Issue 43.

  • Complexity leadership applies concepts of complexity theory to the study of leadership.

Complexity leadership responds to the suggestion that many twentieth century models of leadership fail to capture the leadership dynamic of organisations operating in today's knowledge driven economy, having been designed to accommodate more traditional hierarchical structures (Lichtenstein, et al., 2006). Complexity leadership applies the concepts of complexity theory to the study of leadership, and considers leadership within the framework of a complex adaptive system (Uhl-Bien, et al., 2007). A complex adaptive system is composed of ‘interdependent agents who are bonded in a cooperative dynamic by common goals, outlook, need, etc. They are changeable structures with multiple, overlapping hierarchies, and … are linked with one another in a dynamic, interactive network’ (Uhl-Bien, et al., 2007).

Complexity leadership theory explains how complex adaptive systems operate within bureaucratic organisations and identifies three leadership roles to explore: adaptive (e.g., engaging others in brainstorming to overcome a challenge), administrative (e.g., formal planning according to doctrine), and enabling (e.g., minimizing the constraints of an organizational bureaucracy to enhance follower potential) (Uhl-Bien, et al., 2007). These three leadership functions are intertwined, with the enabling leadership function helping ameliorate the tensions between adaptive and administrative leadership (Uhl-Bien, et al., 2007). Importantly, complexity leadership theory suggests that effective leadership does not necessarily reside within a leader's actions and proposes that ‘leadership is an emergent event, an outcome of relational interactions among agents’ (Lichtenstein, et al., 2006).

Criticisms and challenges

The challenge for complexity leadership theory is that the level of analysis is different to other leadership thinking. As noted by Avolio, et al ‘one of the core propositions of complexity leadership theory is that “much of leadership thinking has failed to recognize that leadership is not merely the influential act of an individual or individuals but rather is embedded in a complex interplay of numerous interacting forces” (Uhl-Bien et al. 2007, p. 302)’ (2009, p. 431). This complexity makes the study of this form of leadership particularly difficult, and poses challenges for the individual seeking to apply this thinking to their own leadership practice.

Further reading

Mary Uhl-Bien, Russ Marion & Bill McKelvey, (2007). ‘Complexity Leadership Theory: Shifting leadership from the industrial age to the knowledge era’ in The Leadership Quarterly 18:4.

Last reviewed: 
29 March 2018