For decades, management was considered a business “science,” a discipline that could be taught in business school classrooms and applied in the workplace. One of the primary exponents of management as science was Peter Drucker, who wrote numerous books on the subject including the business classic Management. Drucker’s writings tracked the rise of the 20th century industrial order, and management was the pinnacle of that.
Management is still taught in business schools, but the order began to fray and unravel in the 1970s and 1980s. Inflation (the prime rate hit 20 percent at one point) and OPEC took a huge toll on the industrial order in the 1970s, and helped led to the convolution of acquisitions, divestitures, restructurings, and downsizings of the 1980s and 1990s. Overlay that with the electronic communications revolution of the 1990s and 2000s, and management as a “science” seemed rather faded and shallow in the face of so much turmoil and change.
What emerged from the turmoil as the operational principle for the workplace was the idea of leadership. The difficult is that leadership can’t really be taught in the classroom. It can be studied, yes. But leadership depends on the character and abilities of the individual, applied in the right way at the right time. Leadership is less a science and more an art. You can teach principles of art, and how art has developed over the centuries, but you can’t really teach an artist the desire and passion to paint, or sculpt, or write.
One the best discussions I’ve read on how leadership functions in the workplace is Make a Difference: Growth in Leadership by Dr. Larry Little (with co-authors Melissa Hambrick Jackson and David Rupert). As the book demonstrates, leadership is easy to understand – we know it when we see it or experience it – but is not so easy to actually do.
Little divides his description of leadership into six components – gratitude, responsibility, ownership, willingness, tough calls, and health. The discussion of each if structured by interviews with leaders at all levels and from all walks of life, people who are leading in their own organizations and circumstances. What emerges from this discussion is an understanding of leadership as something very real and immediate, and something that likely exists within each of us.
Leaders know how to give genuine praise – and why it matters.
Leaders take responsibility and are accountable; they know how to translate vision into reality, and then know that it happens through people.
Leaders are servants, and may follow as much as they lead.
Leaders make the tough calls, but they put others’ interests first.
And leaders know how to maintain their own and their organization’s “leadership health.”
The principles follow from having a broad array of people tell their leadership stories. The principles seem simple, and they are, but simple does not mean easy. Leadership is hard work. It’s also incredibly rewarding work.
And, as Make a Difference: Growth in Leadership demonstrates, as rare as it may be, it can happen anywhere.
Illustration by Frits Ahlefeldt via Public Domain Pictures. Used with permission.