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The Boss: Five decades of leadership studies

From checking and correcting to communicating and building relationships. This is a pretty good summary of the role that leaders have played during the last 150 years, albeit in a slightly tabloid format. So what has typified the last 50 years?

Text: Ruth Astrid L. Sæter
Photo: Torbjørn Brovold

Helt sjef

During a couple of morning lessons, three of BI’s brains meet to discuss developments in leadership studies, leadership development and leadership training, from the 1970s to the present day.

These three brains are: Head of Department and Professor Øyvind Lund Martinsen and Associate Professors Per-Magnus Thompson and Donatella de Paoli. Two psychologists and one leadership and organisational developer, all three of whom possess a keen involvement and interest in leadership studies.

“And in leadership development,” emphasises Donatella de Paoli quickly as they sit down together around the table. We will return to that, but first they are tasked with defining what characterises today’s leadership ideals and theories.

Relationships and soft values

“Leadership today is more than just managing people. Today’s leaders need to operate in a digital sphere, and this requires them to know something about technology while simultaneously having to work even harder on relationships,” says Professor de Paoli as she continues: “Many of them work in open landscapes without a fixed space. It is thus even more important for leaders to create connections and cohesion, both with and between employees.”

“Yes, the relational aspects are becoming increasingly more important. We often talk about placing greater emphasis on the “soft” perspectives of modern leadership and leadership development,” agrees Per-Magnus Thompson.

“Another obvious characteristic – and one which has become more apparent during the last 20 years – is that employees are more knowledgeable than their managers,” points out Professor de Paoli.

“And obviously this is a challenge for their managers, who have been accustomed to being a sort of oracle for their employees. When that function is no longer present, it might seem as though the whole balance of power has been shaken,” says Professor Thompson.

Digital leaders

“A modern manager will understand that leadership is all about having good interactions between managers and employees. When your employees are more knowledgeable than you, it is your job to ensure that any academic decisions are made on the best possible basis and that your employees have greater latitude to engage in production,” adds Professor de Paoli.

She conducts research on how digitalisation impacts on leadership roles, and she has seen that the role of a good leader today mainly involves being a coach and teacher who supports the development of knowledge and learning. Leaders have had to climb down from their pedestals and enter the small digital screen window.

“The structure automatically becomes flatter when you operate on digital platforms. You don’t often meet your employees in person, and this requires leaders to adopt new social and communications skills. You have to learn to listen more, understand what digital silence might mean and not least interpret body language and voices in a different way,” she says.

Leadership studies

Øyvind Lund Martinsen nods in agreement about what the two others say, and adds a new perspective to their chat by saying that many organisations out there do not appear to be taking leaderships studies seriously.

“When I give lectures I always ask how many of the leaders in the audience needed to have leadership qualifications before they became leaders for the first time. With the exception of the Armed Forces, the answer is zero, and that amazes me. What I challenge them by asking why leadership is not regarded as a subject that requires qualifications, they often reply that leadership is something that they had to discover by themselves,” he says.

"My ideal leader is King Harald, because he possesses unique calmness and dignity while simultaneously having a sense of humour and daring to be controversial."

Øyvind Lund Martinsen

Head of Department - Department of Leadership and Organizational Behaviour. Employed at BI since 1998.

Control and correction

Let us take a historical look at leadership. During its humble beginnings at the end of the 1800s the subject was all about leading workers effectively in order to maximise industrial production.

“That is what we call scientific management,” explains Øyvind Lund Martinsen: “the factory foreman was supposed to ensure that the workers did their job by checking their work and correcting mistakes. This required managers to be physically present at the site where the work was being undertaken and that they knew best. It is no longer like that. Managers are less often present at the place where a job is being done, and they no longer know best. This theory was then strongly challenged during the 1970s.

During the course of that decade, in the wake of the hippy era and the controversial sensitivity training of the 1950s and 1960s, management was placed in a social context - and a number of new theories saw the light of day.

Inspirational leadership

“We are almost talking about a revolution in leadership research. It started when James Downton published his book about revolutionary leadership in 1973, when he conducted research on why leaders were successful – and were re-elected. He was the first one to mention the concept of transformational leadership, a concept which was further developed by James MacGregor Burns five years later,” says Professor Lund Martinsen.

Briefly speaking, transformational leadership aims to inspire employees to want to achieve their organisation’s goals and visions, and thus contribute more than what is expected of them. This leadership theory still holds up today.

It was also during the 1970s that the concept of servant leadership appeared for the first time. This involves a leader acting as a sort of servant for his/her organisation and placing the needs of employees first.

“Leadership studies and a lot of the training carried out in the 1970s, were characterised by contingency theories,” points out Professor Thompson, who goes on to say: “These are based on the fact that leaders can adopt a popular leadership style by classifying their employees. For example, an unmotivated, slightly incompetent employee needs to be pushed a bit, while a keen, competent employee should be given more responsibility and trust. Today this perspective might seem to be a bit too optimistic, and we might say that these theories have not quite survived the test of time. However, it would have been great if leadership could have been simplified to look like a flow chart which always tells us what effective leadership is in all situations,” smiles Professor Thompson.

“But what I like about these leadership perspectives is that they remind us about the fact that good leaders are flexible – - they have a broad repertoire of leadership methods. They can be clear, but also flexible. They can inspire, but also stay in the background. They can make demands, but also create trust and autonomy,” he adds.

"My ideal leader is Steinar Olsen, CEO of the outdoor clothing manufacturing company, Stormberg. He is an excellent example of a leader who shows that social values and economic sustainability can go hand in hand."

Per-Magnus Thompson

Associate Professor - Department of Leadership and Organizational Behaviour. Employed at BI since 2010.

Decade for teamwork

During the 1980s, burgeoning globalisation and the incipient technological revolution set their mark on leadership studies. Because more complete problems needed to be solved – and that required teamwork.

“Teamwork became a keyword at that time, especially inter-organisational teamwork. It became important to build good organisational cultures,” points out Per-Magnus Thompson.

While focus was placed on internal corporate culture, globalisation of the economy resulted in frequent changes in society at large. This also needed to be tackled, and change management became a leadership phenomenon.

The arrival of knowledge workers

During the 1990s, it was recognised that teamwork was not the solution to everything and new theories developed about why teamwork was unsuccessful. The same period saw the emergence of knowledge workers, employees who were more knowledgeable than their bosses. This placed new demands on managers, who needed to ensure that their employees could operate on their own. Furthermore, managers needed to engage in a dialogue with their employees in order to help them develop,” says Professor Thompson.

“The 90s were also characterised by performance management. High goals for employees were jointly set by managers and their employees, and the idea was that those goals should motivate and drive employee performance,” points out Donatella de Paoli.

Self-development and authenticity

Motivation continued to be a key concept into the new millennium, but many managers were forced to realise that inner motivation among those being managed was the primary factor. 

“Many employees consider that going to work is an instrument for their self-development and they are now expecting to be enthusiastic and have fun at work. For managers, conflicts may arise between having “prima donna employees” and the company’s profit requirements. It is also a challenge for managers to combine these two considerations, because the potential for success is great, but in practice often difficult to achieve,” says Professor Thompson.

It was also around this time that authentic leadership emerged. According to Øyvind Lund Martinsen: “Authentic leadership creates trust. An authentic leader is in contact with his/her own feelings, is predictable, admits his/her own mistakes and takes responsibility for the mistakes of others. An authentic leader is not afraid to challenge existing situations further up in the hierarchy and is able to stand by his/her employees.

"My ideal leader is Angela Merkel, because she has the ability to highlight important topics with a natural authority and presence. She has achieved fantastic results for Germany, and it is also great that as a women she has managed to get where she is today."

Donatella de Paoli

Associate Professor - Department of Leadership and Organizational Behaviour. Employed at BI since 1999.

Common denominator

“If we look at the most tenable findings after 70 years of empirical leadership research, a good leader is someone who can create a relationship, who makes employees feel that they are seen and understood, and who creates trust and loyalty,” points out Per-Magnus Thompson as the other two around the table nod in agreement.

“Can everyone learn to be a good leader?”

“I have to admit that sometimes the answer is “no”. People who do not understand the importance of relationships, who think that leadership means controlling others, have a very long way to go in order to be good leaders,” says Øyvind Lund Martinsen.

An immature subject?

During the course of their chat it emerges that theoretical leadership research and how leadership development works in practice do not always agree with each other. Why?

“I think that it may have something to do with the fact that much of what we are researching in respect of leadership is not perceived as being relevant by interns. Research quickly become theoretical and narrow, while leadership development is all about processes where having theoretical knowledge about leadership is just a small part of leadership development. I think that we need to conduct more research on effective ways of developing leaders and leadership groups,” says Per-Magnus Thompson. The others agree:

“Yes, leadership development is immature. But leadership studies are also fairly theoretical and distant to people. When “everyone” wants to present their own approach on leadership and new concepts are constantly emerging, things quickly become a bit too highfalutin for our students,” says Professor de Paoli. Professor Lund Martinsen adds:

“Even so, we have a relatively stable perspective on leadership in our research, studies and teaching. What we need to improve is the process. And we are working on that now,” he says.

The two lessons are about to end, and we break off our talks – and Donatella de Paoli exclaims: “That was fun! I have not discussed leadership in this way before. Perhaps we should include it in our tuition?”