There is an interesting tension between what I see as three distinct groups of authors in the genre of business literature, each with their own methods, studies, and kinds of evidence on offer.
The first two groups are what I would classify as broadly nomothetical or “science and evidence based”. The first of whose members propose depictions or theories of management describing managers who have foundational and dynamic influence on institutional behaviour and business outcomes. These authors include names such as Smith & Krueger, Lewis, Tucker, Maccoby, Hargrove (Bass, 1997).
In contrast, the second group posits managers as having at best very limited impact or influence, and that much of what is ascribed to the influence by management really lies outside their control and is in fact the effect of external causes, and this group of writers includes authors such as Meindl & Ehrlich, Calder, Brown, Pfeffer (Bass, 1997).
Although these two groups are at times diametrically opposed in position, they both base their respective positions on cases, evidence, and often on ethnographic studies of specific companies (Lieberson & O’C onner : Bass, 1997), industries (Salancik & Pfeffer : Bass, 1997), groups, or individuals, and may use either longitudinal or cross-sectional methods with or without statistical data in additional to specific evidence and findings.
There is some sign that the two groups are converging on each other, and that modification of prior positions is resulting in movement closer to the middle e.g. Miner (Bass, 1997), taking place through the hypothetico-deductive process normal to developing sciences. We could then perhaps view the two as a single group who by common process and methodology are approaching consensus.
A different set of voices are those such Drucker (Drucker, 1996) and De Pree (De Pree, 1989) who do not provide a scientific, ethnographic, or analytical argument, but rather take positions as “business gurus” – Somewhat “ metaphysical sages” who impart distilled wisdom on technique, philosophy, or moral values that we are entreated to follow or assimilate into management practices. Some of these narratives take as their basis the personal experience of somebody recognized as a leader in some sense and take the form of an autobiography (“Coach K” Milne 2003-6, p4).
Others find their source material in past and perhaps fictionalized biographies of leaders such as Attila the Hun (Milne 2003-6, p4), various Roman or Greek historical figures, or biblical or mythological figures. In many prescribed texts of business schools, the narrative takes the form of a parable or personal reflection in which an axiological structure is filled with details and events that lead to a conclusion that some method or process produces a good or bad outcome.
The “good” is described and the role, behavior, and characteristics of the “good leader” are, for example, explicated and described with the sub-textual imperative that these are to be emulated and accepted as goals and objectives.
One aspect of the tension between the science-based group and the metaphysical group is that while the metaphorical, narrative form of the latter group is easily assimilated and anybody can relate to them, they seem to fall into dogmatism and lack tools with which to be measured.
Failure to achieve desired results could be ascribed to simply not applying the method stringently enough, and it is difficult to see how failure or success would build upon any prior narrative. The technique is thus not as far as I can see additive in any real sense to knowledge even though it is very “inspiring”.
At some point we might question whether such programs are producing “business artisans”, or rather a “business priesthood” which is impervious to contrary evidence or disproof, and which may hinge on “belief” and “ followship” rather than evidence.
The corollary to this is that if there is a science of leadership then it is in its infancy, and at best a nascent science that is as yet still trying to identify what the metrics are, and what the problems are that it should address.
An interesting device then, is to thread these two different groups through each other and use Drucker and De Pree to say that we should pick the most moral approaches and to use the “scientific” group to point to Drucker as an example of a leader who according to the studies of leadership, performed his role by shaping “interpretations or understanding” (Bass, 1997 p14) and therefore entitled to describe to us what the “Good goods” are (De Pree, 1989 p21), but leaving it to science to determine how best to get there.
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De Pree, M 1989 “ Leadership is an Art” in Milne, P 2004 “Book of Readings Vol 1 005704 University of Canberra
Bass, B M 1997 “ Concepts of Leadership” in Milne, P 2004 “Book of Readings Vol 1 005704 University of Canberra
Milne, P 2003-6 “ Study Guide 5704 : Knowledge Management Leadership” University of Canberra
Drucker P.F 1996 “ The Leader of the Future” Eds. Hesselbein, F. Goldsmith, M. Beckard, R Published by Jossey Bass
Matthew Loxton is a Knowledge Management professional and holds a Master’s degree in Knowledge Management from the University of Canberra. Mr. Loxton has extensive international experience and is currently available as a Knowledge Management consultant or as a permanent employee at an organization that wishes to put knowledge to work.