A Field Theory of Leadership
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Existing leadership theories tend to explain that leaders induce others to follow as a function of one or more of the following: i) A specific set of traits possessed by the leader (e.g., charisma); ii) Different types of behaviours the leader exhibits depending on the situation (e.g., a focus on tasks or a focus on relationships); iii) Specifics relating to the structure and dynamics of the leader-follower relationship (e.g., economic, social, or psychological exchange, or a ‘customized’ focus on the ‘follower’). Leadership is thus seen largely as getting others to do what the leader wants based on what the leader does for them (some kind of exchange mechanism), or on his/her character or style. Whether intended or not, one can argue that these theories are characterized by a somewhat manipulative and self-serving view of leaders and leadership, even when there is a focus as well on ‘elevating’ those who follow. We argue that existing theories are based on assumptions and logic that pose significant challenges, and that there is a gap in understanding the essence of the leadership phenomenon, particularly how it emerges in the first place in the perception of observers. We advance an alternate view, drawing in particular on psychological field theory, whereby leadership emerges as the result of the perception of meaningful acts of challenge or resistance undertaken by individuals that compel others to follow, without invoking exchange mechanisms, character traits or style. More specifically, we find that leadership is the phenomenon of engaging a collective by: - meaningfully challenging the status quo or system over a sustained period of time, combined with the associated accumulation of legitimate power sufficient to align the collective to overcome opposing stabilizing forces, and creation of a new status quo/system and equilibrium; or, - meaningfully resisting challenges to the status quo or system over a sustained period of time, combined with the associated accumulation of legitimate power sufficient to align the collective to bolster stabilizing forces that would otherwise be overcome by the challenging forces, thereby consolidating the status quo/system and equilibrium. We claim that this is an essence that people perceive and respond to in seeking out and reacting to leaders. Five studies were conducted to test and validate the theory. Studies 1, 2, and 3 provided experimental evidence confirming our first hypothesis that an individual who meaningfully challenges the status quo more strongly than another over time will be perceived to be a stronger leader. Studies 4 and 5 provided qualitative evidence supporting our second hypothesis that individuals who are asked to recount in some detail specific acts of leadership they have experienced will share the unique common thread of perceiving another individual (or individuals) meaningfully challenging the status quo or system with respect to an issue of concern over a sustained period, or meaningfully resisting challenges to the status quo or system. We conclude with a general discussion of what has been learned and recommendations for future work.
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Morley Katz (2018). A Field Theory of Leadership. UWSpace. http://hdl.handle.net/10012/13009