In 1905, the world-famous Carnegie Museum of Natural History placed the bones of a prized Apatosaurus on review. The bones remained on display until 1992, when the fossil was reexamined by a different team of paleontologists. These late-century paleontologists noticed that the dinosaur had been assembled incorrectly, and that the wrong head had been placed on the dinosaur almost 90 years earlier. 2 Over the course of the twentieth century, hundreds (perhaps thousands) of scholars and academics had viewed the bones and admired the symmetry and perfection of the fossil—never noticing the 90-year-old error the original paleontologists had made. No one ever questioned whether the fossil has been assembled incorrectly, or whether this world-famous museum had made an error. On the contrary, because the museum itself stood as an authoritarian benchmark of quality and distinction, it is quite possible that many other museums, paleontologists, and scholars had used this fossil as a standard from which other scholarly ventures were based. It was a profound error, and one that took nearly three generations of scholars to correct.
Given the weighty nature of this mistake, and the overall humor in placing a wrong head on a skeleton, your authors would like to use this example as a starting point from which to explore the possibility that the study of leadership is likewise suffering from an ancient error in construction. We propose that (in some cases) the study of leadership has become a calculus formula that has become memorized, but never derived. By this we mean that for generations younger scholars have been presented with information that is suggested to be true, but may more likely be a strongly supported opinion.
It has been suggested that there are as many methods to define leadership as there are ways to measure it. From a research perspective, this flexibility is often very beneficial, because the purpose of research is to look at things in increasing levels of complexity, with the ultimate goal of discerning intricate parts of the puzzle. But is it possible that, in the literature of leadership theory, the level of complexities has become so intricate that the larger picture is no longer visible? A review of leadership theory suggests the possibility that the answer to this question is “yes.”
Furthermore, is it possible that the study of leadership has suffered from theory creep? The original conception of creep is attributed to former U.S. Secretary of Defense Casper Weinberger, who suggested that creep is the absence of a uniform vision, and who noted that this condition results in constant change. 3 The end product of creep results in people solving problems that have no relationship to the original project or process at all. In other words, the wrong fight is fought.
The study of leadership theory may have also suffered from theoretical creep. A review of leadership theories in the twentieth century suggests leadership studies have shifted from the broad and wide-ranging trait and “great man” theories to discriminate research efforts that reflect more of an application of unit models of decision making or satisfaction, rather than theory. Supporting this premise, some authors have suggested the problem with organizational theories is that the wrong unit of analysis is applied to inappropriate situations. Furthermore, many authors suggest previous studies may not be looking at leadership issues, but rather at evaluating supervisory and interpersonal characteristics. 4 – 9
Early Precedents for Misapplied Theories
Early anthropological and scientific literature is regularly flawed and full of assumptions and opinions often presumed to be fact until new insights came to light. A whimsical example is the “flat earth theory,” which was largely abandoned after the invention of the telescope and the circumnavigation of the globe by early mariners. Other scientific research is less amusing and could produce harmful consequences.
For example, in the early 1900s through the 1930s, the practice of eugenics was accepted in the United States. An estimated 60,000 people were sterilized when researchers of the era suggested persons with disabilities were a menace to society and could not contribute to humanity. 10 , 11
Thirty-five states enforced eugenics-related laws, and the practice was endorsed by the U.S. Supreme Court in the 1927 Buck v. Bell decision, in which Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes declared that “three generations of imbeciles are enough.” 12 Later, in the early 1940s, faulty research by the U.S. Army Air Corps supported previous research and literature that suggested African Americans were incapable of flying modern aircraft due to intelligence gaps as compared to their white counterparts. 13
Situations in which new scientific theories replace older ones are constantly documented in the literature. Paleontologist Jack Horner of the Museum of the Rockies posits that Tyrannosaurus Rex (“tyrant lizard king”) could not have been a predator. Horner traced back the literature behind the naming of T-Rex by its original discoverer, Henry Osborne, in 1905. Osborne speculated that T-Rex’s big teeth and head must have been used in a predatory capacity. This assumption became a widely accepted, often cited, and frequently quoted part of paleontology literature for almost a century. Almost 100 years after the discovery, however, new scientific analysis of the skull and teeth suggested that T-Rex was actually a scavenger. 14
The organizational literature is likewise peppered with misnomers and reevaluated ideas. Weber’s “Protestant work ethic” (PWE) posited that “work gives meaning to life.” 15 This theory gained some popular support in early organizational literature, but examination of the literature by later scholars failed to find support for the PWE theory in contemporary literature. As early as 1990, Peter Drucker suggested that society is in need of many new models in leadership and management. “[The] old theories are feeling the weight of increasing complexities,” 16 he said.
In respect to this effort, earlier attempts to develop a uniform framework for effective leadership analysis have translated into significant academic challenges for researchers in this field. Although the term leadership is relatively new to the English language, the idea of leadership has existed for thousands of years. Researchers well recognize that certain individuals stand out from others in a group setting and ultimately direct the group to achieve a specific goal. These individuals have, for centuries, been recognized as leaders. Some such leaders may be associated with business or the military, whereas others become prominent politicians or social activists. Whatever the environmental setting may be, one fact is clear: There is little consensus on exactly what leadership is and which processes create an effective leader. 17
Leadership is one of the most widely debated and broadly defined micro-organization theories within the realm of organizational behavior. As a result, the discussion of leadership and leaders has transcended traditional boundaries and is often incorrectly extended to describe behavior and phenomena associated with managers, supervisors, coaches, educators, celebrities, political representatives, inspirational personnel, sports figures, and subject-matter experts. Despite the well-respected body of literature that distinctly separates leadership from other identifiers, the “leadership” label continues to be used to describe a plethora of activity in society. 18 The overuse and misuse of the term leader makes it difficult to study the concept of leadership and differentiate the concept of “leaders” from managers, supervisors, and popular personality figures.
Because of this misapplication, the terms leader and leadership have dominated fashionable connotations associated with nonequivalent positions, resulting in a popularly accepted—though largely incorrect—hierarchy. According to this “pecking order,” being a leader is better than being just a manager, supervisor, or subject-matter expert. Being designated as a leader rather than a manager (or something else) results in an artificial perception of status, which translates into a “feel good” perception for the individual. Perhaps this notion is in part associated with competition for the best employees and other cultural changes that have occurred within society in the last century. A review of classified ads in The Washington Post for senior-level healthcare personnel will turn up few vacancies for “business managers”—but will likely indicate that several positions for “industry leaders” are available.
As a result of these applications, leadership-, management-, and supervisory-related terms have essentially become synonymous within the literature and society. Consequently, leadership constructs are no longer perceived as distinct and mutually exclusive. A review of the literature suggests there is no single construct unique to leadership theory. Researchers working within the leadership theory field are often forced to borrow from the abundance of micro-organizational theories in the discipline to explain phenomena associated with leadership theory.
In response to these propositions, a new model of leadership, originally developed by Coppola at the Army Medical Department Center and School, Academy of Health Sciences, Fort Sam Houston, Texas, is offered here for purposes of discussion, thought, and reflection. 19 This model takes into account constructs and concepts that many traditional models of leadership do not include. These items include higher order, environment, and individual culture composite elements.
Reviewing Leadership as a New Problem
The study of traditional leadership theory does not always study leadership itself, but rather the outcomes of leaders and the antecedent factors that constitute management practices. Several weaknesses are associated with the traditional leadership models that have been previously published. However, all models have potential for improvement. To begin with, few of the models attempt to define leadership theory before building models that explain the phenomena associated with it. For example, Yukl has suggested that there are at least seven (and perhaps many more) different definitions of leadership that can be found within the literature. 20 – 22 On which of the various definitions of leadership are the models based when they are tested? Without a uniform definition of leadership, and without agreement on measures and variables, outcomes are most certainly interpreted broadly.
The Euclidean management philosophies of the 1970s and 1980s, in which many of these leadership models have their roots, have since been replaced with more interactive, matrix-like, collaborative, and participatory-based models. These models were introduced to accommodate the paradigm shift in employee expectations, generational changes, and societal expectations (such as more women in the workforce) that has occurred in the last two to four decades. As a result, the application and study of leadership models have not kept pace with this paradigm shift in its totality.
Yukl’s research exposes a wide variety of ideas on what constitutes leadership. The existing literature on leadership theory also promotes this definitional gap. Researchers have proposed a variety of theories: trait-based theories, transformational theories, contingency theories, and normative theories. The strength of these theoretical approaches lies in the fact that scholars generally accept them as reliable frameworks for evaluating distinct aspects of leadership. In reality, significant weaknesses exist because no one model can successfully explain all past behavior or predict all future behavior in an omnibus fashion. This differs from the study of constructs and measures in other academic fields. For example, scholars in the health field have regarded Donabedian’s model of healthcare quality as a panacea for establishing a basis for any discussion of the subject in any health organization. Similarly, Mintzberg’s typology for organizational analysis is a staple for deconstructing organizational hierarchal elements into manageable groups for efficiency and performance analysis. 23 , 24
Brief Overview of Theory
In the mid-1980s, Samuel Bacharach, building on the earlier works of Popper, Kerlinger, and Duban, developed criteria for evaluating theory that has become the benchmark for modern theoretical assessment in organizational literature. 25 – 28 According to Bacharach, a theory is a statement of relationships among concepts within a set of boundary assumptions and constructs. In this system of constructs and variables, the constructs are related to one another by propositions and the variables are related to one another by hypotheses. As a result, theory is a linguistic device used to organize a complex empirical world.
Similarly, Kerlinger noted that the essence of hypothesis testing is to test the relationship expressed by the variables in the hypotheses, rather than to test the individual variables themselves. Unfortunately, a majority of the leadership literature is centered on testing unit variables such as task accomplishment and satisfaction rather than more broadly defined leadership constructs. Moreover, as discussed previously, the overwhelming majority of leadership studies focus primarily on the outcomes of management and not leadership. These traditions suggest that modern-day thinkers must redirect their efforts and concentrate on defining and testing leadership as a construct.