Dr. Shannon Brown is a graduate of the Ph.D. program in values-driven leadership, an assistant professor at University of St. Francis, and the former VP of Client Services, Exemplify. Shannon is also the lecturer for the Leadership Theory course in Benedictine University’s new Executive M.S. in Values-Driven Leadership program.
In the following interview, Shannon answers questions about the study of leadership theory, and how business leaders and practitioners can put leadership models and theories to work. For more on leadership theory, see our two part series.
Why study “leadership theory” – isn’t leadership something that is learned by doing?
I LOVE getting this question! One of the biggest myths we encounter is the idea that theory is somehow apart from action – that the two are not related. In fact, it’s just the opposite. Theory is developed specifically by watching people “doing” and “acting,” and then explaining the behaviors with words. We call that “theorizing” – answering questions like “what’s going on here?” and “why did they do that?” in such a way so that it can be understood by someone who did not see the behavior themselves. When you study theory, you are studying explanations of behaviors that have been observed and documented and analyzed (and evaluated in terms of effectiveness as well).
One of the other benefits of studying leadership theory is to be a better follower. In other words, the benefit lies in not understanding how to “lead,” but in understanding how to work with a leader. If a follower, subordinate, employee, etc., understands leadership “theory,” then when he sees an individual engage in a certain behavior, he better understands what and why something is happening and also has some insight into how to best respond, react, and interact with that individual to be most effective.
When someone hasn’t studied leadership theory and he “learns by doing,” he may be successful, but chances are that he won’t know why he was successful. I think people often make this mistake. They use a “style” (although they might not even see it as such), and it’s effective in one situation, so they then assumes that’s the best leadership approach overall. Try it in another situation – different people, different organization, different goal, and it may fail miserably. If the leader had studied theory, he would have a much better chance of (a) understanding why he failed and/or (b) choosing the best approach to begin with.
Theories can seem straightforward, while real life is complex. How do leadership scholars address complexity?
Since the point of a theory is to make a complex idea or behavior understandable, good ones are straight forward. When you only look at a model or read a definition, they might seem simplistic. However, when you dig deeper, the student quickly realizes there are situations in which one approach works but others will not, perhaps industries where certain “theories” are more applicable, etc. In some ways, this is the difference between reading a popular business “self-help” book and taking a course or a program that really digs into leadership. A contemporary business book’s goal is a “quick fix” – often for a very narrow set of circumstances. Digging deeper allows you to uncover nuances of the theory so you can discern which approach to apply to different leadership challenges in your own life.
Download our 1-page overview of the new Executive M.S. in Values-Driven Leadership Program, where Dr. Brown teaches Leadership Theory.
Is there a model or theory of leadership that most resonates with you?
Transformational leadership in a landslide. While organizations do not need to make evolutionary changes daily, some of leadership’s biggest opportunities lie in successfully navigating an organization from point A to point B, and the evidence shows that transformational leadership is the most effective approach for large scale change.
A few specific concepts in the theory resonate with me: first, the idea that not only is the organization is transformed, but also the individuals within it as well. And second, the idea that the goal (or desired future state) is something that is agreed upon by the organization’s members.
How have you seen an understanding of leadership theory actually help leaders reach their goals?
As I mentioned above, I think it really helps understand OTHER people’s behavior. Additionally, because different approaches are most effective in different situations, an understanding of various theory gives someone an extensive toolkit to use to tackle a variety of organizational problems. If someone encounters a “crisis” situation, he knows which approach to use. If he needs to effect sweeping change, he has another tool to employ. If he needs his followers to step up and take ownership, he knows to use a different strategy. If he needs to improve relationships between management and the union, another approach would be useful.
The reality is that there’s not a “one size fits all” leadership style, so knowing which “theory” to use in each circumstance is really a benefit. Jack Welch, widely considered one of the most effective leaders in modern history, is a prime example of this. Many of his followers who were trained in his unique leadership style, known as “The Welch Way,” have gone on to lead other large organizations. However, their success in those organizations has been mixed, with some finding moderate success and others experiencing total failure, including bankruptcy and firing. In my opinion, what this shows us is that there’s no one “right” way to lead, so perhaps those unsuccessful CEOs tried to employ “The Welch Way” in organizations where the situation did not warrant it. But because those leaders only knew one way, the lacked tools to make course corrections when their initial approach did not work. A student of leadership theory may have done a better job of choosing the best approach to begin with, but if not, he would have additional tricks up his sleeve to turn to when he was met with unsatisfactory results.
If you want to better understand leadership theory, where should you start?
This is where organized education in general, and a masters degree specifically, really shines. Whereas an undergraduate degree gives a student a broad understanding of a variety of topics with a little bit of depth in the student’s major area, a graduate degree encourages the student to dig deeply into one specific area. As a result, Benedictine University’s new Executive M.S. in Values-Driven Leadership program is a great place to develop a deeper understanding of leadership theory and how to best put each theory into practice.
I also recommend reading academic articles (whether or not you’re a student), as those are generally based on specific research studies. If you read about a specific situation, organization, event, etc. and how it was handled effectively (or ineffectively as is the case sometimes), you then begin to be able to understand which theories work in certain circumstances. The Center for Values-Driven Leadership offers several book lists, including this one on leading change.
For more on Benedictine University’s new Executive M.S. in Values-Driven Leadership program, please visit this link, or complete the form below.