Doctor of Leadership in Global Perspectives: Crafting Ministry in an Interconnected World

The “It” of Leadership

Written by: on November 8, 2013

One factor that leadership theory, contemporary social theory, and theology all have in common is that writers in these particular fields do not always agree.  Also, these fields do not contain all the answers to all the big questions.  This is refreshing for me.

Mark Zupan says in his article “An Economic Perspective on Leadership” located in the Handbook of Leadership Theory and Practice (2010)[1]:

…scholars have been hard pressed to develop a model for leadership.  This is not for a lack of trying.  Each year, scores of books are written on the topic (more than on any other), cataloging traits and operating styles that effective leaders possess and/or providing emblematic case studies and anecdotes.  According to Bob Eckert, chairman and CEO of Mattel, Inc., a search on Amazon.com reveals nearly 200,000 books dealing with leadership (Eckert, 2008[2]).

Imagine 200,000 Amazon matches; Google has 284,000,000 hits for the search word “leadership” (there will probably be more than that tomorrow).  Just what a leader is and does is debatable.  What are the main characteristics of good leaders?  What does a good leader do with his or her time?  What are the factors that create the best leaders?  These topics are discussed and debated by many leadership scholars in the Handbook of Leadership Theory and Practice, edited by Nohira and Khurana (2010)[3].  It is interesting to note that these scholars are interdisciplinary, which further enhances the nature of the field of leadership studies.

One thought kept resurging through my mind as I was reading this text, and it wasn’t pleasant.  I have recently decided that my dissertation will touch on the importance of indigenous leadership styles as they relate to higher education – and my thoughts for the past couple of weeks have been something like this, “Wait until they see my contribution to this field!  They are all going to fall over in wonder and amazement when they read my transcript!  I have found the answers to the questions about leadership!”  Then, as I read this week’s brilliant text, I realized that my work would be, at best, merely one voice in the field, one drop in an immense ocean.  This awakening was both comforting and humbling.  So, who is right?  Whose theories are the best?  It all depends on the situation; no one theory has all the answers.

Although all of the articles were helpful to my understanding of leadership, two sections of the text really stood out to me, both by the same author, J. Richard Hackman.  The first article is called “What Is This Thing Called Leadership[4]”; the second is titled “What Makes Teams of Leaders Leadable?[5]” In this writing I will summarize and comment on the first essay, since taking on both essays would make this post much too loquacious.

In the first reading, Hackman raises six themes that emerged from a two-day leadership conference he attended:  Domain, Criteria, Functions, Contexts, Conditions, and It.  The primary concern at the conference was on the leadership of purposeful social systems, by which he means “…sets of people who work are identifiable as system members and who work interdependently to accomplish one or more collective objectives[6].”  Hackman acknowledges that his thinking is one way among many of looking at good, effective, successful leadership and argues that the question is not only, “Should leaders make a difference?” The better question is, “In what ways do they make a difference?”  He then argues that the term “success” needs to be defined as “…that which enhances system viability.”  Hackman goes on to spell out the three attributes for viable social systems:

First, those who are affected by the work of the system (for example, clients, collaborators, or other stakeholders) are reasonably satisfied, and perhaps even pleased by, what the system produces.  Second, the system itself becomes more capable of performing as a unit over time.  And third, individual members derive at least as much personal learning and fulfillment as frustration and alienation from their work within the system[7].

Hackman then discusses the reality of what he calls “functional leadership,” which includes members of the system who hold no formal leadership roles. The author presses his argument by declaring that good leaders resonate with research discoveries that identify “those leadership functions that are most critical to system viability – and that prompt them to consider fresh approaches for getting those functions fulfilled[8].”  Hackman is arguing for good leaders to do their thinking in new boxes!  Innovation, creativity, and openness to new methods are what will ultimately label a leader “functional.”  I believe Hackman is urging his readers to fearlessly step into an unconventional way of thinking about leadership.

Hackman then goes on to discuss the various “contexts’ for leadership, noting that every leader faces his or her own context; thus no one leadership behavioral style can be identified that will label the best leaders.  He then returns to his theme of identifying the structural “conditions” that when present increase the possibilities of social system viability.  He gives several examples of strategies that demonstrate mismanagement and micromanagement but then offers a better strategy of his own.  Hackman writes:

Having the right conditions in place opens possibilities, allowing leaders to do their own work in their own ways given their particular systematic contexts, using their own special strengths and styles, and drawing on the full array of other resources that are available to them[9] [italics mine].

Hackman then gives a potent illustration of leadership by using an experience he had watching the Russian conductor Yuri Temirkanov leading a performance of a Mahler symphony.  As the conductor began, he dropped his hands to his sides, thus allowing the orchestra to play while he listened.  Although this conductor did guide the orchestra through parts of the symphony, generally he kept his hands to his sides.  Hackman’s point is that the conductor had prepared his musicians so well that he was now “managing on the margin[10].”  Hackman finishes this section, “As Temirkanov demonstrated, to focus on conditions rather than cause is the think differently about social systems, and to act differently when leading them[11].”  This illustration helped me to realize the fact that those in a social system (in various contexts) will benefit from leaders who trust their colleagues.  Why is it, then, that leaders so often “cherish exaggerated ideas of their own importance?”[12]

Finally, Hackman addresses the “mystery” of leadership by tackling the question, “What is the “it” in a master leader?”  He illustrates using “masters” from other disciplines who cannot explain to others why they themselves are great.  These, declares Hackman, are the truly “expert” leaders.  He concludes that there is no irrefutable answer to his question.  Rather, the question regarding the “it” of leadership will have different answers for different situations.  But the reality is that even though we cannot explain how they got “it,” we all know that some leaders have “it” and some don’t.

Years ago, I had a professor who answered another student’s question by telling the student that he didn’t have the answer.  This was a biblical studies class, Old Testament survey.  When I heard my instructor’s answer, my respect for him went up immediately.  This was the first time I had ever heard a teacher say that he didn’t know.  I will never forget that day; it was the best image I had ever seen of true, living humility.  Although I still don’t know what “it” is, I can guarantee that at least part of the answer has to do with a leader’s humility level.  What a concept.


[1] Mark A. Zupan, “An Economic Perspective on Leadership,” in Handbook of Leadership Theory and Practice, eds. Nitin Nohira and Rakesh Khurana (Boston, MA: Harvard Business Press, 2010), 265

[2] Robert A. Eckert, “Leadership” Unpublished manuscript, in Handbook of Leadership Theory and Practice, eds. Nitin Nohira and Rakesh Khurana (Boston, MA: Harvard Business Press, 2010), 265

[3] Nitin Nohira and Rakesh Khurana, eds., Handbook of Leadership Theory and Practice, (Boston, MA: Harvard Business Press, 2010)

[4] J. Richard Hackman, “What Is This Thing Called Leadership?,” in Handbook of Leadership Theory and Practice, eds. Nitin Nohira and Rakesh Khurana (Boston, MA: Harvard Business Press, 2010), 107

[5] Ruth Wageman and J. Richard Hackman, What makes Teams of Leaders Leadable?,” in Handbook of Leadership Theory and Practice, eds. Nitin Nohira and Rakesh Khurana (Boston, MA: Harvard Business Press, 2010), 107

[6] J. Richard Hackman, “What Is This Thing Called Leadership?,” in Handbook of Leadership Theory and Practice, eds. Nitin Nohira and Rakesh Khurana (Boston, MA: Harvard Business Press, 2010), 107

[7] Nohira and Khurana, Handbook of Leadership, 109

[8] Nohira and Khurana, Handbook of Leadership, 111

[9] Nohira and Khurana, Handbook of Leadership, 114

[10] Ibid., 114

[11] Nohira and Khurana, Handbook of Leadership, 115

[12] Romans 12:1-2 (Phillips translation)

About the Author

Bill Dobrenen

I am a husband, father, and educator. I love my wife, my two amazing children, and my students. My dissertation research is on the importance of Traditional Native-American Tribal Leadership Practices. Being in the LGP program is a gift from God for me during this season of my life. I look forward to another great year with my LGP4 cohort.

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