Leadership: The science, the art and the amateurs

Recently, I got to hang out with some friends who were drinking and I became the designated driver. One friend (after too much vodka) said to me, "So your doctorate is in leadership. Isn't that the stuff in the self-help aisle?" My sadly sober self just smiled. Nothing is really wrong with the self-help aisle and one of these days I hope to have my own book there. But as it turns out, there's a lot of books about leadership and they espouse various strategies, discuss motivations, and so forth. I realized that "leadership" is a somewhat ambiguous term to many people. On further reflection, that short exchange inspired me to discuss the topic of leadership today.

My scientific training kicked in and I asked myself, could I be wrong? Is leadership simply learning "soft skills", and is it wasteful to get a terminal degree in it? An engineering professor teaches engineering courses but anyone with a pulse could be chosen as a leadership instructor.

Granted, it is hard for me to have an unbiased viewpoint after all the years I spent learning and savoring every possible premise, idea and theory in leadership. I realize that when you assess popular books you can get the impression that leadership is merely acquiring specific habits, finding out who moved your cheese, or just getting an attitude adjustment. However, these books have a purpose and we have to consider a level of analysis, and who is the intended audience.

The science of leadership and the empirical research to back its theories are taught in universities and colleges all over the world. As a doctoral student, you learn about behavioral leadership theories, like Mintzberg's 10 Management Roles. You probably had to write an essay on the difference between a manager and a leader. You would be quizzed about Herzberg's Two–factor Theory of Motivation. You feel empowered and you tell yourself the day I become a leader I know that I can give more responsibilities and motivate my employees. The problem with leadership books and courses is that they do not reinforce skill development and application in general.

The art of leadership is typically distilled from the autobiographies of successful public figures (military leaders, former presidents, football coaches, historical figures and Olympic athletes). These inspirational books resemble a cookbook. Through the lesson learned, the leader gives us his or her recipe for successful leadership. Sometimes, it is even written by someone else analyzing the life of a successful leader. It would be very useful if there were books that tie leadership theories to the autobiographies; meaning, look for the real stories that lend credence to the theories. Note to self: maybe that is what I should do – a case study leadership book.

Now for the amateurs. It is always a similar story. Picture a hard-working person who gets tired of riding the metro and reporting to his or her 9-5 job. That struggling individual goes to a public library looking for inspirational books. He or she has an epiphany and decides to become a leadership trainer. Prior to this momentous event, they might have heard some fuzzy descriptions of leadership styles during a job training session, but did not quite understand them. They might have taken personality traits and leadership tests, then thought that it was similar in value to a Facebook quiz that reveals your true animal spirit. These amateur leadership trainers, while they may lack proper knowledge of the science or art of leadership, still have the potential of becoming really influential and successful – largely due to personality and dogged determination. They could even get lucky and land one or two corporate training jobs.

That kind of leadership trainer is living proof of the Acquired Needs theory, since they are motivated by their need for achievement. The more they want it, the more they do it. Eventually they may become even more successful than doctoral graduates, which are struggling to pay back their student loans. So I understand that you might wonder why people pursue a terminal degree in leadership at all.

The real question is, which way is best? The Science? The Art? The Amateur? The solution is to embrace all three. There is a place for the science, the art and all the amateurs. Teach the science and get inspired by the art. Let the amateurs spread the word. Leaders understand there is no single path that works for everyone.