When I ask seasoned managers in the class room about examples of leadership, a lot of them tell stories about getting the job done. “There was indecisiveness in the group and I took the decision.” “There was a change needed and I just told them to do it.” “We needed to get our sales target and I pushed my people to go the extra mile.” This kind of answers frustrate me. They seem to conflict with some norms or principles about leadership that I value.

And yet, there’s a strong trend in leadership theory that supports the viewpoint of those managers.”The leader’s main job is to do, or get done, whatever is not being adequately handled for group needs”. This definition from McGrath (1962) emphasizes that leadership is not about style and social correct behavior. Directive, authentic, authoritarian, empowering: it doesn’t matter as long as the leader contributes to the achievement of goals.

This functional perspective is central in more collective or shared leadership thinking. Leadership is a combination of different roles and anyone can take them up (e.g. Morgeson et al. 2010; Pearce et al. 2014). Organizations as e.g. the Flemish public administration adopted this perspective by defining 4 roles: manager, coach, leader and entrepreneur (cfr. image). They don’t emphasize the how. This depends on the situation, the cultural norms of the organization and customers, the group members, the personal integrity and so on. Leadership is idiosyncratic. It’s the unique combination of context + leader + people + goal. There’s no one preferable style.

This perspective is liberating. It means that it makes no sense to push leaders into a certain style. Stop those trainings about inspirational, transformational… leadership. Invest no longer in pigeon-holing leaders. It only frustrates them and hinders them in following their unique path. It’s also the approach we advocate with our 19 thoughts.

But. There’s one big footnote to this thinking. There’s also “destructive leadership”. In a recent review, Krasikova et al. (2013) make distinction between harmful influencing style and destructive goals. Harmful influencing we all know by experience or examples. It’s about e.g. abusive supervision, favoritism, bullying, pseudo-transformational leadership. This means that the functional leadership approach can only be healthy for employees when there are very clear norms and procedures about wrong leadership behavior, as is also advocated by e.g. Pearce et al. (2014) & Hackman (2002).

The other form of destructive leadership is more difficult to spot. Leaders can pursue goals that can harm the organization. This is the domain of ethics: do leaders have the right dream? Do they pursue the right goals?  Are the goals aligned to the strategy of the organization? This damage is more fundamental as it betrays the trust of the organization and of the employees.

Wrong goals can be triggered by personal characteristics as e.g. narcissism, impaired self-regulation, but also by goal blockage. Goal blockage happens when the organization doesn’t offer autonomy or resources to reach the set goal or when trust lacks in the strategy. Organizations should be on the watch for destructive goals by paying attention to selection mechanisms and to realistic goal setting and alignment.

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